Two fourth downs flip the game

Head coaches Mark Stoops of the Kentucky Wildcats and Paul Johnson of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets shake hands after the game at EverBank Field on December 31, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

In the second quarter, when the TaxSlayer Bowl was far from decided, two fourth-down plays swung the balance toward Georgia Tech, helping send the Yellow Jackets to their 33-18 win over Kentucky on Saturday.

“They converted a fourth down. We didn’t,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “Those are critical plays.”

Trailing 10-3, Kentucky had driven from its 28 to Tech’s 5-yard line, where it faced a fourth-and-1. The Wildcats are not a risk-loving team — their 12 fourth-down attempts going into the game were tied for 116th in FBS — but they had made 10 of them, the third highest rate in the country (83.3 percent). Stoops made the decision to go, feeling that the Wildcats would need the points to keep up with the Jackets in a low-possession game.

On the play, defensive ends KeShun Freeman and Antonio Simmons were unblocked on the edges and pinned down running back Jojo Kemp in the backfield, stopping him for a 1-yard loss. Kentucky ran the play out of a wildcat formation, with Kemp taking the shotgun snap.

Taking possession, Tech ran into its own fourth-and-1 on its fourth play of the drive, at its 15-yard line. Coach Paul Johnson has little problem going for it on fourth down, but doing so inside the Jackets’ own red zone is unusual even for him. Johnson joked that he went “brain dead” by going for it.

“We’re anticipating them going for it on fourth down,” Stoops said. “That’s what they do. It’s very difficult to stop that for a yard.”

Tech sent an A-back in motion in hopes of drawing Kentucky offside, and when that didn’t happen, quarterback Justin Thomas said he was waiting for Johnson to call timeout. When he didn’t, Thomas snapped the ball and gave it to B-back Dedrick Mills, who ran behind guard Parker Braun and center Freddie Burden for a relatively easy 3-yard gain for the first down. Tech finished the drive in the end zone after Thomas’ 21-yard scoring run. Rather than a possible 10-all tie had the Wildcats made their fourth down, the Jackets were now up 17-3.

“I was surprised, especially that early in the game, being that far on your side of the field,” Thomas said.

Johnson said that he had an official beside him and that he was considering a timeout, but that Thomas snapped the ball too quickly before he could act. What made Johnson consider the play at all was that Kentucky didn’t have a player lined up over Braun.

“When they didn’t cover the guard, it was kind of a gimme,” he said.

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