Tech has problems, but it also has Thomas

There were a number of things that Georgia Tech hoped for in its final game before opening play in the ACC. Seeing a 35-10 lead at home evaporate, allowing four consecutive touchdowns to open the second half and letting an opponent that played at the FCS level seemingly five minutes ago steamroll for 528 yards of offense were not among them.

The record says 3-0. But the road Tech took to get there: gravel.

“It was a lot more exciting than it needed to be,” coach Paul Johnson said.

Exciting for Georgia Southern. It lives for games like this. The Eagles stunned Florida in the Swamp last season, and that was the biggest party anybody had seen in Statesboro since the last Walmart opened. They nearly upset North Carolina State in the season opener (losing 24-23 in the final minute) and had Tech clinging to the side of a building by its finger tips Saturday.

The Yellow Jackets scored on their first five possessions and led 35-10 at halftime. In the second half, as linebacker Quayshawn Nealy neatly summarized, “They came out ready to go, and we came out slacking.”

The offense went from five consecutive touchdowns to five consecutive punts. Georgia Southern scored four consecutive touchdowns to take an improbable 38-35 lead. The #FirePaulJohnson hashtag probably was close to trending on Twitter.

“There’s a small margin for error when you lose focus,” Johnson said, and his team did just that.

This is where the story gets better.

Tech may not project as a great team, but it has one thing going for it: Justin Thomas.

The sophomore accomplished something rare for an option quarterback: He threw four touchdown passes. The irony is that Thomas is replacing Vad Lee, who fashioned himself an effective enough passer that he convinced Johnson to let him throw more last season. The results were ugly. Not only was Lee a bad fit for the option, he completed only 45.6 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Lee transferred to James Madison after the season. Some viewed that as a setback for the program. Truth is, even if Lee returned, Thomas might have won the starting quarterback job.

If Tech’s season turns into something special, it will be because of Thomas. He won a game for them Saturday. With 4:12 left and the Jackets trailing 38-35, he led an 11-play, 72-yard drive, capped by a remarkable 13-yard touchdown pass to A-back Deon Hill with 23 seconds left. Thomas spun away from blitzing Georgia Southern linebacker Edwin Jackson and, with two other Eagles’ defenders closing in, fired a pass to an open Hill who then won a race to the end zone.

Teams don’t have to be great to win games. But they need players who can make great plays when it matters most.

“He made a play at the end to win the game,” Johnson said. “He made the linebacker miss. This is the best game he’s played overall. He’s got a good skill set for what we do.”

When asked if he saw Hill when he was being chased by defenders, Thomas said. “Not the whole way, but we’ve got the 334 connection,” he said, an allusion to both being from that Alabama area code.

“When (Georgia Southern’s Jackson) stepped up I kind of had my eyes on him. When he came free I knew I had to make him miss.”

Thomas rushed for 137 yards and threw for 188 more. His 5-yard touchdown run opened the scoring, his pass to Hill closed it. There were some bumps. He missed some throws. (After starting the game 7-for-8, he went 3-for-15 until the game-winning touchdown.)

But consider what he did on that final drive: a 12-yard run on third-and-7 from the Southern 48; a 14-yard run two plays later; the touchdown pass on third-and-7.

This was more of an escape than anything else. Tech might have lost if not for a reversal on a replay. The Eagles were at Tech’s 24, driving to an apparent score, when quarterback Favian Upshaw attempted a pass that was batted down by Jamal Golden. But on replay, officials ruled Upshaw’s pass traveled sideways, not forward, and therefore it was a fumble (recovered by Tech’s KeShun Freeman).

But the Jackets still needed somebody to drive them to a win, and that was Thomas.

“I told him: We’ve got a drive to win the game. We’ve got a chance,” Johnson said.

Thomas gives Tech that much.