A week after playing perhaps his best game of the season in the last-minute loss to Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas followed it with a mistake-pocked performance in one of the biggest wins in school history. In a season that has failed to follow virtually any of the conventional wisdom regarding the Yellow Jackets prior to the season, the notion that Tech can only go as far as Thomas could carry them took a kick to the ribs.
“I felt like I could have played a lot better,” Thomas said Monday, two days after the Jackets’ upset of then-No. 9 Florida State. “We didn’t have to be in that situation at the end of the game. But it happened. The team played great and they got the victory.”
The efficient play and string of highlights that Thomas delivered in 2014 have given way to a different sort of season for a player expected to build upon his first season as a starter. His own play has not matched his 2014 level, the rest of the offense has struggled and the results reflect it.
Among other things, his touchdown/interception ratio is down (18/6 to 10/6) and his fumbles are up (eight in eight games compared to seven in 14). Thomas, with a heavier workload, has also been banged up physically. And, of course, the 3-5 record is a disappointment.
“It puts a different perspective on things, not only on the field, but in life, too, that everything’s not going to go the way you want,” Thomas said. “Everything’s not going to be perfect. You’ve just got to find a way to make it better. If you don’t do anything about it, it’s not going to get any better.”
For Thomas, two passes in the second quarter of Saturday’s game exemplify his experience this season, in particular his efforts to balance his reliance on his quickness, instincts and arm to make plays other quarterbacks can’t with avoiding mistakes.
On one, a third-and-5 from the Tech 44, Thomas felt pressure coming on a blitz and up the middle and fled the pocket. He compounded the protection malfunction by throwing off his back foot to a tightly-covered target 15 yards downfield. Safety Lamarcus Brutus had enough time to intercept the pass and return the ball to the Tech 2-yard line, setting up a touchdown for a 10-3 FSU lead.
Later in the quarter, the Yellow Jackets lined up for a second-and-13 from Tech’s 3-yard line with about 3:30 left in the half. The game may not have hung in the balance, but it was a drive away from tilting heavily towards the Seminoles. If the Jackets couldn’t earn a first down, they would give the Seminoles excellent field position with a chance to take a 20-3 lead going into halftime.
Thomas sprinted out left and, again, the protection fractured, this time with the running backs. It allowed defensive lineman Giorgio Newberry a free run at Thomas, setting up in the end zone. Disaster loomed. However, Thomas deftly dodged Newberry, and, with lineman Derrick Nnadi also closing in, flicked a spiral to wide receiver Ricky Jeune for a 33-yard gain.
“It was an incredible play,” said quarterbacks and B-backs coach Bryan Cook, whose praise is typically more tempered. “He made the guy miss in the end zone and heaves a corner ball that was on a dime. That was a heck of a play.”
Two plays later, Thomas was sprinting to the end zone for a 60-yard touchdown run to reduce FSU's lead to 13-10. The Jackets had gone from possibly going into the half down 17 points to being down three, although FSU's final drive of the half increased the margin back to six. The Jackets’ attempt to end their five-game losing streak by upsetting the Seminoles was still alive.
Cook said that Thomas is to the point in his development that he already knows what he and coach Paul Johnson will say to him after a series before they even say it.
“We’ve just got to make better decisions there,” Cook said.
Thomas, who is likely roughly just past the midway point of his career as a Tech starter, has a lot of his story left to write.
“He’s trying to run the ball when we need him to,” Cook said. “There’s a lot of things he’s doing well. He’s not 100 percent physically sometimes, but he’s fighting through it.”