5 ways the Jackets won the game that you may have missed

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets players celebrate after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats to win the TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field on December 31, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

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Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets players celebrate after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats to win the TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field on December 31, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

The big plays from Georgia Tech’s 33-18 win over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl were obvious – linebacker P.J. Davis’ scoop-and-score touchdown, defensive ends Antonio Simmons and KeShun Freeman teaming up for a fourth-down stop, wide receiver Ricky Jeune hauling in quarterback Justin Thomas’ 3rd-and-4 pass in the fourth quarter to help put the game away.

However, the Jackets won their third bowl game in their past four attempts with more plays than that. Here are five segments of the game that influenced the outcome in a more subtle manner.

Desmond Branch makes his mark

After Davis’ touchdown gave Georgia Tech a 7-0 lead, Kentucky was already in a position of having to respond. The Wildcats picked up a first down and then had a 2nd-and-8 after running back Boom Williams gained two yards on first down. On second down, defensive tackle Desmond Branch beat left guard Nick Haynes to pressure quarterback Stephen Johnson and force an incompletion.

Branch, a junior-college transfer, has shown steady improvement this season and has seen his playing time expand in concert. Saturday, he came up with perhaps his biggest play of the season. His quarterback hurry put Kentucky in 3rd-and-long, an advantageous position for the Jackets. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof called a blitz that forced Johnson out of the pocket, where safety A.J. Gray stopped him for no gain.

Kentucky punted and the Jackets drove 55 yards for a field goal and a 10-0 lead – Tech caught a break when quarterback Justin Thomas threw right at defensive end T.J. Carter from Whitefield Academy, but he was unable to make the interception – that began to reduce the Wildcats’ probability for a comeback.

Corey Griffin gets his hand up

After Tech took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, Kentucky answered with one of its most efficient drives of the day, a series that began at Kentucky’s 25 and got to the Tech 20 in 10 plays. After defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong held running back Benny Snell to a two-yard gain out of the wildcat, safety Corey Griffin beat a block to tackle Williams for a one-yard loss. Griffin came through again on the next play, deflecting a potential touchdown pass to cause an incompletion. Kentucky settled for a field goal and a 10-3 score.

Griffin, of course, was involved in perhaps the most tough luck play of the season – a pass he tipped against Pittsburgh was caught for a game-tying touchdown in the Jackets’ loss to the Panthers. Favor was kinder to him Saturday.

Picking up for the offense

On a 3rd-and-6 from the Tech 36 in the second quarter, quarterback Justin Thomas threw a pass to the sideline to wide receiver Brad Stewart, who had a tough but makeable opportunity for a catch to pick up the first down. Falling to the ground, Stewart was unable to make the reception, and the Jackets punted.

With the score 10-3 in Tech’s favor, it had the potential to be a game-turning play, but Stewart was ultimately picked up by the Jackets defense. Kentucky moved from its 28 into the Tech red zone, gaining a 1st-and-10 on the Tech 14. The Jackets stopped Johnson on a keeper on first down for a one-yard gain. On a read-option give on second down, safety A.J. Gray and linebacker P.J. Davis held running back Jojo Kemp to a four-yard gain. On 3rd-and-5, cornerback Lance Austin tackled on Johnson to set up 4th-and-1. On a wildcat run play, Freeman and Simmons were left unblocked and brought down Kemp in the backfield, a huge play that not only set up the ensuing touchdown drive, but made amends for the prior series.

Erasing a special-teams error

After Ryan Rodwell’s punt was blocked in the third quarter – the first and only blocked punt of his career – Kentucky had advantageous field position and a chance to change the momentum of the game. The Wildcats started at the Tech 43 trailing 20-3. (Tech was helped by a Kentucky personal foul that moved the ball back 15 yards.)

Tech stood its ground. On 2nd-and-8, Freeman got off a block to limit Williams to a two-yard gain. On 3rd-and-6, Davis blitzed and forced an incompletion. Handed its best starting field position of the game, Kentucky went three-and-out, nullifying the impact of the blocked punt.

Bounce goes Tech’s way

The Jackets averted danger again on the next series. Thomas and A-back Qua Searcy didn’t connect on a pitch – Searcy appeared to be too close to Thomas, and the pitch hit Searcy in the facemask – and the ball fell on the ground. Kentucky linebacker Jordan Jones nearly recovered it but it bounced away, and Thomas fell on it at the Tech 26.

Tech could do nothing with the recovery, but simply maintaining possession enabled Tech to punt the ball away – special-teams coordinator Lamar Owens called for a standard punt rather than the rugby-style punt that was blocked on the previous possession – to flip the field. Rather than starting inside the Tech 30 had they been able to recover Searcy’s fumble, the Wildcats began their drive on their own 35, at which point the Jackets forced their third three-and-out in a row.

Thomas fumbled later in the game and recovered it himself again with the score 23-10 on a drive that ultimately ended with a field goal for a 26-10 lead.

In a game where Kentucky needed to steal possessions with turnovers, the Wildcats had opportunities with two fumbles, but Thomas was able to fall on both. Thomas’ last game wasn’t his finest, but he still found ways to tilt the game toward the Jackets.