Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas’ career as a Yellow Jacket is down to its final two games, including Saturday’s matchup with Georgia in Athens. Thomas’ yards, touchdowns and honors are many — he is the only Tech player ever to have been named captain three times, for instance — but don’t completely encapsulate the impact he has made, nor the memories he will leave in three seasons as a starter.
Over the course of 36 starts, Thomas has dazzled Tech fans with quickness and speed, playmaking flair and capacity for coming through in the clutch. He has been a better passer than expected, a deft practitioner of the option and has shown grit by playing through injuries.
As his time ends, Thomas shared his recollections of five of his more memorable plays.
Georgia Southern, 2014
With Tech down 38-35 with 4:12 remaining in the game, Thomas drove the Jackets from their 28-yard line to the Georgia Southern 13, where they faced a third-and-7 with 32 seconds remaining. Dropping back to pass, Thomas spun away from a blitzing linebacker coming up the middle, circled back right and found A-back Deon Hill for the go-ahead touchdown. Tech held on for a 42-38 win.
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“I kind of saw it developing,” Thomas said. “I saw the (linebacker) popping, and we didn’t have anybody for him on the back side, so I knew I had to make him miss. And the way the play was set up, Deon was dragging, so I knew he was there and he made a good catch. It was a high ball, he made a great play on it, made a guy miss — missed tackle — and he got in the end zone.”
In his third start, it was the first big moment of his career. He didn’t see it that way.
“It was nothing special,” he said. “I was just trying to make a play and everybody else made a play around me, too.”
You can see the clip here at the 2:31 mark.
Mississippi State, 2014
The Orange Bowl turned into a glorious runaway for the Jackets, but it was still in doubt when the Jackets drove midway through the third quarter, leading 28-20. On an option play from the Bulldogs 32, Thomas was forced to the outside, where he encountered Mississippi State cornerback Will Redmond. With a stutter step and head fake, Thomas feinted right and Redmond lunged to his left. Thomas cut left to leave Redmond in his wake and sped untouched to the end zone for a 35-20 lead. Recently, kicker Harrison Butker marveled at the play, describing Thomas as having “sauced” the cornerback.
“It’s hard to explain that,” Thomas said. “When it happened, it just happened. That whole game, the whole offense was in a zone. There was no way they were going to stop us no matter what, no matter who touched the ball. It was that type of night.”
After crossing the goal line, Thomas pantomimed brushing off the bottom of his cleats.
Said Thomas, “I had to wipe the sauce off.”
Florida State, 2015
The Jackets’ 22-16 stunner over the Seminoles is remembered largely for the game’s final play — Lance Austin’s return of a blocked field-goal try for the game-winning touchdown — but Thomas left his own mark. Tech trailed the undefeated Seminoles 13-3 when Thomas went under center for a second-and-6 from the Tech 40-yard line with about 2:35 to play in the second quarter. Keeping the ball on a triple-option play, Thomas ran his track to the right when he bolted upfield, shedding a backside tackle attempt by All-American cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Thomas angled to the sideline, his left shoulder pad flapping, having slipped out after Ramsey’s tackle try. The 60-yard scoring run was the Jackets’ only touchdown — until the final play of the game.
“I didn’t feel (Ramsey),” Thomas said. “I didn’t know he was coming off the back side. I didn’t know who it was until we watched the film who was there. I was actually upset because I wasn’t playing great and I had thrown two picks already, so when I got the seam, I just tried to hit it as hard as I could because I knew we needed something.”
The dangling shoulder pad irks him.
“I was actually upset after the fact because it messed up my pictures with my shoulder pads out,” he said.
Boston College, 2016
In the season opener in Dublin, Tech trailed 14-10 with 2:45 to play and faced a fourth-and-19 on its 32. The Jackets needed to convert to keep realistic hopes alive. Thomas nearly was sacked on first down, actually was sacked on second down and then threw incomplete on third down. Rather than punt with two timeouts, coach Paul Johnson gambled on Thomas and called for both sets of receivers and A-backs to run vertical routes. With solid protection, Thomas dropped back, waited in the pocket and drilled a 22-yard pass to A-back Qua Searcy for the first down. Lifted, the Jackets drove for the game-winning touchdown with 35 seconds left.
Tech had run the same play previously. Thomas recognized that, if the Eagles defended it the same way, Searcy would be open down the right seam.
“So I told Qua before we snapped, I was like, ‘Stay alive, get to the sticks,’ and he came open,” Thomas said.
Thomas said that he tries not to think of the do-or-die magnitude of the situation.
“You can’t think like that,” he said. “You’ve got to go in, like, you’ve got to complete it. You don’t have a choice but to complete it.”
Ahead 28-7 at halftime, Tech fell behind 35-31 and was in jeopardy of losing its third in a row to the Blue Devils, with two of the losses at home. Starting their drive at their 14 with 8:49 to play, Thomas was sacked for a 9-yard loss on first down. The Jackets were looking squarely at a three-and-out that would give Duke advantageous field position for a chance to perhaps put the game out of reach.
On second-and-19 from the 5, Thomas was chased deep into the end zone by two Duke linebackers. A safety seemed a very real possibility. But Thomas escaped his pursuers in the end zone and burned down the right sideline, not brought down until he had crossed the 50, a 46-yard gain. Thomas finished the drive by squeezing in a pass to A-back Clinton Lynch for a 21-yard touchdown pass and what proved to be the game-winning score.
“I remember, the play before that one, they sent the same blitz, and I looked at (the instant replay) on the Jumbotron,” Thomas said. “I was like, there’s nobody that’s over there (in the area the linebackers vacated). So when (Johnson) called the (same) play again and that (linebacker) blitzed, I knew exactly where I was going to go.”
Thomas usually looks up at the video board after plays that don’t work for instant feedback.
“I can just see what I could have done and what I couldn’t have done,” he said.
As he ran down the sideline, Thomas twice reached down with his left hand to pull up his thigh pad. His pant leg was sliding down over his knee, and he was trying to pull it up.
“It wasn’t slowing, it was just bothersome,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was doing it.”