ATLANTA—With eight minutes to go and his Yellow Jackets trailing for the first time all afternoon, quarterback Justin Thomas rolled out to the right, backing up into his end zone.
Chased by a pair of Blue Devil defenders, the 6-foot-3 senior looked for an escape route. As Duke linebacker Ben Humphreys sprinted up the middle and defensive end Dom McDonald held the edge, Thomas headed for the sideline, just hoping to make the most of a broken play.
And like he did all afternoon, the Prattville, Ala., native found yet another way to gash the Blue Devil defense.
“When I looked at the angle he had, I said on the headset, ‘They’re not going to catch him,’” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said.
Thomas turned the corner and found a lane in front of the Blue Devil bench, sprinting for 46 yards to set up Georgia Tech’s eventual game-winning touchdown. In the Yellow Jackets’ 38-35 victory against Duke, the Georgia Tech signal-caller dominated the Blue Devils from start to finish.
From tossing a 50-yard bomb on just the Yellow Jackets’ third play from scrimmage to scampering for 50 yards late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory, Thomas had it all going right for the hosts.
“Some of those plays are just based on pure athleticism,” Humphreys said. “[Thomas] is kind of playing outside the offense and it’s tough to stop…. He’s been here three-plus years and this is the best game he’s played against us by far.”
The explosive chunk plays that have plagued Duke throughout a challenging season haunted the Blue Devils once again Saturday. Georgia Tech racked up 605 yards of offense on just 61 plays, good for an average of nearly 10 yards per play. The Yellow Jacket offense also tallied 13 plays of 15 yards or longer, scoring from more than 20 yards out on four of its five touchdown drives.
After Thomas—who rushed for 195 yards on 17 carries—gave Georgia Tech an early 14-0 lead on an 82-yard touchdown run, Duke cut the Yellow Jacket lead in half with a score of its own. But with quick strikes of 33 and 46 yards through the air on the ensuing drive, Georgia Tech was back up by two scores and well on its way to a 28-7 halftime lead.
Early on, the Blue Devils had no answer for the Yellow Jackets’ dangerous triple-option attack. Georgia Tech shredded Duke for 327 yards on only 26 first-half plays, despite having the ball for less than 13 of the game’s first 30 minutes.
But the Blue Devils have made sure to make big plays of their own this season despite getting gashed by opponents, and that trend continued in the second half to spark Duke’s 21-point comeback.
On the Yellow Jackets’ first play of the second half, a crucial forced fumble and recovery by Humphreys—who finished the game with 10 solo tackles and a sack—gave the ball back to quarterback Daniel Jones and the Blue Devil offense with good field position.
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And after Duke sliced the lead to 28-14 with a touchdown, a huge hit by safety Deondre Singleton on the ensuing kickoff caused the Yellow Jackets’ kick returner to put the ball on the turf at his own 10-yard line. One play later, Blue Devil running back Jela Duncan found paydirt for the second time in as many plays.
Thanks to those few momentum-changing plays by its defense, Duke—which faced its largest deficit at any point this season at halftime—was right back in the game.
“There are a lot of people that run from these situations,” Cutcliffe said. “At the worst of times, that’s when people jump off bandwagons—not this group of young men. It was really impressive to see the battle waged forward and everybody took part.”
With the exception of three Georgia Tech rushes that went for 146 yards, Jim Knowles’ unit kept the Yellow Jackets in check for a majority of the second half.
But once the Blue Devils snuck in front midway through the game’s final stanza, Thomas went to work.
“He’s elusive. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he plays big,” redshirt senior strike safety Corbin McCarthy said. “He did a phenomenal job capitalizing on some of our mistakes when it came to pass rush and giving him some open lanes.”
With the Yellow Jackets facing a 3rd-and-17 and less than two minutes remaining, Thomas once again used his legs to dash up the middle for a 50-yard pickup that would salt the game away. Georgia Tech’s quarterback finished the game with a 99.7 quarterback rating—the best of any player in college football so far this season.
And for a Blue Devil team that is running out of time to make its fifth straight bowl game, Saturday was yet another chapter in what has been a season of inconsistency.
“We were in position to win the game,” Humphreys said. “It’s tough because you’re in a position most weeks and the ball’s not falling your way. You’ve just got to keep working hard during the week until it does.”