Georgia Tech will bring the 2016 season to an end Saturday in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Kentucky. There is little chance that anything that takes place upon EverBank Field will displace A-back Qua Searcy’s 6-yard touchdown run against Georgia as the most memorable and evocative play of the Yellow Jackets’ season.
Down 27-21 with 36 seconds to play, with Tech facing a third-and-goal from the Georgia 6, Searcy took a toss from quarterback Justin Thomas for a halfback option play and a throw back to Thomas. Instead, with Thomas covered, he pulled the ball down and ran it in for the game-tying touchdown.
Tech fans everywhere will remember it for a long time. Those directly involved have memories of their own.
A-back Qua Searcy
The decision to run the ball? That was not rehearsed.
“Actually, every time I repped it (in practice), I threw the ball,” he said.
Reminded by coach Paul Johnson not to force the pass, Searcy approached the play with that mindset — don’t throw an interception.
“Just focusing on if there was someone over there with Justin, just try to make something happen or just run out of bounds,” he said.
He kept his composure, watching Thomas run his route.
“There were, like, five guys who went to Justin, so I wasn’t going to throw it,” he said.
It wasn’t in his thinking to cut back and run. But, he said, he saw the middle of the field clear out as defenders followed Thomas.
“I didn’t expect to go up the middle or anything,” he said. “It just happened.”
Running right, he planted his feet at the 13-yard line on the right hash, took seven steps to the goal line, planted with his left foot at about the 4-yard line and exploded off his right over linebacker Roquan Smith and into a compressing thicket of four Bulldogs defenders. He said he jumped on faith.
“Once I just got to the line of scrimmage, I just knew that I’ve got to go airborne or I’m not going to get in,” he said.
Clutching the ball with both hands and extending his arms, Searcy lunged to the goal line, breaking the plane with the ball as he landed. He said he knew he had scored.
“It was just a whole shock going through my body,” he said. “The feeling was overwhelming. It didn’t kick in until I got to the sidelines. It was just a great feeling.”
A-back J.J. Green
Green was on the sideline for the play, having been injured earlier in the game. He was surprised when he heard Johnson’s play call at that juncture.
“I was just like, ‘Please don’t throw it,’” Green said.
When Tech rehearsed the play in practice, Green said, different A-backs got a chance at throwing the pass.
“Qua threw it the best his two times of throwing it, so we were just like, every time we got in practice — ‘Hey, Qua, it’s your turn to throw,’” Green said.
When Searcy returned from the sideline after the touchdown, he shared a word with Green.
“He came to the sideline, he told me, ‘That was for you’ since I couldn’t be in the game with him,” Green said.
Quarterback Justin Thomas
Tech’s three-time captain thought the play could work. Tech had run a toss play to Searcy to the right on first-and-goal from the Georgia 6-yard line two plays earlier, and no Georgia defender was mindful of him as he leaked out the back side. Thomas has no career receptions, and had never run the play in his four seasons, but he said he wasn’t nervous.
“I had no problem with it, especially if I was able to catch it,” Thomas said. “It would have been just something different, I guess. It would have been exciting. Like I said, we worked on it all week. We worked on it every day. I was expecting it at some point. Not for the last play, I guess.”
In the tension, Thomas kept his cool.
“Before we broke the huddle, I just told Qua to be smart — we had another play (on fourth down),” Thomas said. “If it’s not there, just throw it away. At the end of the day, he made a better decision and he ran it, and even if we didn’t get it, we had the ball, like, on the half-yard line with a few seconds left.”
A-backs coach Lamar Owens
Owens was proud of Searcy for knowing what to do when the play started to fall apart.
“As a coach, you can talk about plays and scenarios all throughout the year,” he said. “You can play for 20 years and never have a play like that where you call a halfback pass and the halfback has to make a split-second decision, should he throw it or not? And you talk about all those things all the time. All the time. You talk about it every time you talk about the play. He took the coaching to the field and everything he did after the decision (to run). That’s his God-given ability to contort his body like that and finish in the end zone. I had nothing to do with that. That’s all on him.”
Center Freddie Burden
When he saw Searcy pull down the ball and cut back to the middle, Burden turned upfield and looked for a defender to block. He got a good push on nose tackle John Atkins to ward him away from Searcy.
“I just got a piece of a guy, and Qua just made the play,” he said.
Burden was caught off-guard by the play call.
“It was kind of something you practice, but you never think Coach is going to bring it out,” he said. “Then you’re like, we’ve been running this whole time, it’s been working. But it’s like a play that, man, this could really get these guys. It’s either going to be good or bad. But it ended up good. I probably wouldn’t have called it if I was the coach, but I’m not the coach.”
Kicker Harrison Butker
The touchdown only tied the score at 27. It was now up to the line, snapper Casey Wilson, holder Ryan Rodwell and Butker to score the game-winning extra point. Considering that Butker had made 204 of 206 career extra points, it would seem a foregone conclusion. However, one of the two misses had come at Sanford Stadium two years ago in overtime at the same end of the field.
“Yeah, so when I was going there for the extra point, I was just pretty calm, and then the fans started screaming and all that, and then I was kind of like thinking back to the 53-yard field goal and I was like, Wait a minute — it’s just an extra point,” Butker said. “But then I was like, Oh, well, it got blocked two years ago. But I wasn’t worried. Our O-line has done a great job all year. The blocked kick at UNC was my fault, and I knew they were going to block, so as long as I got the ball up, we were going to make it.”
Butker did indeed get the ball up for the game-winning point and also to tie Luke Manget for the school career scoring record at 322 points.
Coach Paul Johnson
Johnson called the play during a timeout in a huddle on the sideline. Rarely satisfied, Johnson saw two flaws in the play’s execution. B-back Dedrick Mills missed a cut block on defensive back Maurice Smith, who went to cover Thomas. Wide receiver Brad Stewart, lined up on the left side, was jammed at the line, delaying a drag route across the middle that was intended to bring a defender with him and away from Thomas’ route.
“So it was like, had you done that, he would have been open, but we didn’t do either of those things,” Johnson said. “And to Qua’s credit, he made a great play. It’s just like we said, ‘Hey, it’s third down, don’t force the ball and just turn around and throw it over there.’”
Had Searcy not reached the goal line, Johnson said the fourth-down play call would have depended upon the spot. But Searcy rendered that decision academic.
“Qua deserves all the credit,” Johnson said. “He made a good decision and got it in there.”