Tomorrow’s Taxslayer Bowl is a huge event for Mark Stoops and his staff for so many reasons and is almost the perfect bowl situation for Kentucky in the fourth year of the Stoops era. It's a bowl in the fertile recruiting ground of Florida and the New Years Eve timeslot is a great lead-in to the Playoff games later in the day. For the history buffs, this is also a throwback to the SEC battles of old.
The Cats and the Yellow Jackets have not faced off since 1960 when Georgia Tech defeated Kentucky 23-13 in Atlanta. Georgia Tech leads the all-time series with Kentucky 11-7-1.
Georgia Tech comes into the game with an 8-4 record, and they went 4-4 in the ACC. They had two common opponents with Kentucky in the form of Georgia and Vanderbilt. They crushed Vanderbilt 38-7 and had a one-point win over Georgia, 28-27. It should be noted they beat Vanderbilt early in the season and the Commodores were a much different team later when the Wildcats played them, and Kentucky played Georgia very tightly as well.
Both teams come into the game on hot streaks as the Yellow Jackets have gone 5-1 over their last six games and have a 30-20 win over then #14 Virginia Tech. The Cats have gone 7-3 and are coming off a 41-38 win over then #11 Louisville.
Both teams are playing their best football right now, and this should be a solid bowl game. Let's meet the Yellow Jackets.
When you discuss Georgia Tech’s offense, most of the attention is going to go to the triple option offense and Senior quarterback Justin Thomas does a fantastic job of running it.
Thomas is the third leading rusher on the team and has 562 yards and 4 rushing TDs. He averages 4.4 yards a carry but is dangerous with breakaway speed. The passing game is obviously secondary to the running game, but Thomas is an experienced QB and makes you respect the pass. Thomas completes 54.5% of his passes for 1,454 yards and has 8 TDs against just 2 INTs. Thomas can still take over a game with his arm and legs. Against Duke, Thomas passed for 264 yards and 2TDs and rushed for 195 yards and another two touchdowns,
Sophomore Marcus Marshall and Freshman Dedrick Mills split the carries pretty evenly which makes the triple option effective. Marshall averages 6.5 yards a carry and has 625 yards on the season and 4 TDs. Marshall destroyed Virginia and Virginia Tech in back-to-back games with a combined 280 yards on just 35 carries. Mills averages 5.0 yards a carry and has 602 yards on the year and 11 touchdowns. His best game was 132 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown against North Carolina.
Sophomore Clinton Lynch is also a threat to run the ball or catch passes out of the backfield. He averages a whopping11.2 yards per carry on 35 attempts and has two rushing TD's. He is even more impressive as a receiver and averages 30.6 yards on his 16 receptions and 6 TDs. That is an almost unbelievable stat that a running back has two-thirds of his teams receiving touchdowns. Qua Searcy averages 6.6 yards on 41 carries and has two rushing touchdowns. He is also a receiving threat with nine catches for 147 yards. Sophomore QB Matthew Jordan has 6 rushing TDs out of the Wildcat offense and 243 yards on 65 carries. All in all, the Yellow Jackets have 32 rushing touchdowns against nine through the air.
As you may have guessed, the receiving corps is not terribly productive as two of the top four targets are running backs. Brad Stewart has 17 catches for 372 yards, which is an impressive 21.9 yards per catch average. Ricky Jeune leads the team with 22 catches for a 16.7-yard average, and he has a touchdown. The passing game does keep the defense honest as the Yellow Jackets average 20.4 yards a carry.
The Yellow Jackets average 27.8 points a game and 257.4 yards a game on the ground and a 5.5 yard a carry average. Kentucky's offense and ground game compare favorably as the Cats average 31 points a game and 241.2 yards and a 5.5 yard per carry average. Kentucky averages 187 passing yards a game compared to Georgia Tech's 131.2.
Patrick Gamble has been a beast on the defensive line with 5.5 sacks and 8.5 TFL. He's a hard hitter that gets after the quarterback and is sixth on the team with 47 tackles. DE KeShun Freeman has 36 tackles and puts pressure on the quarterback with nine hurries. Rod Rook-Chungong has 29 tackles, 4.5 of which are in the offensive backfield. Antonio Simmons does not start but leads the team with 12 hurries and also has 5 TFL. Anree Saint-Armour provides depth and also has four sacks.
RJ Davis is the heart of the linebacking corps and is a solid run stuffer. He is second on the team with 70 tackles. Brant Mitchell is also solid with 68 tackles, three of which are for a loss. Mitchell also has two interceptions. Chase Alford is also a good run stuffer and has 31 tackles and can get after the quarterback occasionally. Terrell Lewis is all over the place and has 21 tackles, 3.5 for a loss and is good at putting pressure on the quarterback. Victor Alexander adds solid depth.
DB Corey Griffin leads the team in tackles with 79 and has 2 INT and 4 TFL. The Austin twins, Lance and Lawrence, lead the team in interceptions with three apiece. Both are extremely productive as Lance has 47 tackles and Lawrence 43. Lance is probably the best pass defender on the team and leads the team with 12 passes defended and 15 broken up. Step Durham has 29 tackles and has defended and broken up five passes apiece. AJ Gray has 64 tackles and 3.5 tackles for a loss.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
Expect a ground attack all day from both teams. Neither team is especially good at stopping the run, and this is an area where Kentucky can be greatly exposed. Kentucky allows 225 yards a game on the ground and 5.1 yards a carry. The Yellow Jackets are slightly better, allowing 174.2 yards and 4.8 yards a carry.
You get the feeling that if Kentucky can handle the triple option rushing attack of the Yellow Jacket, they should win the game. That is easier said that done as all you have to do is think back a couple of years to the last time Georgia Tech faced a SEC team in a bowl. The Yellow Jackets ran all over #7 Mississippi State to the tune of 452 yards in the 2014 Orange Bowl. Georgia Tech won that game 49-34, but that was an 11-3 Georgia Tech team.
Teams that have a balanced attack can beat Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets ran all over North Carolina for 374 yards, but the Tar Heels won 48-20. North Carolina had a total of 636 yards, and 353 of that was through the air. I am pretty confident that Stephen Johnson can have a big game and Kentucky can run the offense they want to run.
In the end, this comes down to the discipline and recognition from the Kentucky defense. The triple option is tricky to defend as all it takes is one defender to not be on the same page, and that could equal a disaster. It takes a lot of the defensive line to get into the backfield and to limit the options. The front seven will have their hands full, and the defensive backfield will have to not get baited into giving up wide open receptions.
I have to say that I like the fact that Mark Stoops has a month to prepare for the triple option and while it's impossible to stop it completely, I think UK will limit the number of big plays. If Kentucky can win the turnover battle, they should win this game.
In the end, I think that the extra month of preparation for this team will be the key. I really like what the coaching staff is doing, and I am really excited to see what the extra practice will do with both the offense and the defense. This will be an entertaining game, but look for the Cats to make some big plays on both sides of the ball and escape with a 31-28 win.