JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Dedrick Mills ran for a career-high 169 yards and a touchdown, Justin Thomas scored in his final collegiate game and Georgia Tech beat Kentucky 33-18 in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday.
The Yellow Jackets (9-4) also got significant contributions from defense and special teams en route to their fourth consecutive victory.
Playing without running back Marcus Marshall, who decided to transfer after the regular-season finale, Tech turned to Mills to handle the workload. And the freshman from nearby Waycross, Georgia, delivered. He carried a career-high 31 times as the Yellow Jackets won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in more than a decade.
It wasn’t totally a one-man show, though.
Senior P.J. Davis returned a fumble 38 yards for a touchdown on the game’s opening drive, a horrible start for a Kentucky team that was making its first bowl appearance in six years. And fellow linebacker Terrell Lewis blocked a punt late in the first half that set up a 52-yard field goal.
Thomas added a 21-yard touchdown run. And Harrison Butker made a career-best four field goals.
The Wildcats (7-6) looked like a team merely content with being in a bowl game. They couldn’t slow down coach Paul Johnson’s flexbone spread option and really struggled to get much going on the ground.
Kentucky’s backfield duo of Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell combined for just 69 yards on the ground.
Still, the Wildcats had a shot in the final minutes. Quarterback Stephen Johnson scrambled for a 21-yard touchdown with 3:57 remaining and then connected with C.J. Conrad for the 2-point conversion to make it a one-score game.
But Thomas found Ricky Jeune wide open on a third-and-4 play near midfield for a 42-yard gain. Mills scored three plays later to seal Tech’s victory.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have to replace two significant cogs in its flexbone spread option, with Thomas graduating and Marshall transferring. But Mills looks like he could be a force for at least two more years.
Kentucky: The Wildcats could lose as few as six of 22 starters, and with Snell and Johnson blossoming late in the season, coach Mark Stoops could have a solid nucleus in place to make another bowl in 2017.
Trailing 10-3, Kentucky was threatening to score when Jojo Kemp was stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the 5 with a little more than 5 minutes to play in the first half. Tech responded with a 94-yard drive that included a fourth-and-inches conversion from their 15. Thomas’ TD run made it 17-3.
Making matter worse for the Wildcats, they had a punt blocked on the ensuing possession and Georgia Tech turned it into a long field goal on the final play of the half.
Stoops and Johnson exchanged words in the first quarter, with Stoops screaming at his counterpart across the field.
Stoops was clearly upset that two of his players — defensive ends Courtney Miggins (left knee) and Alvonte Bell (right knee) — were injured on consecutive plays. After Stoops walked to the middle of the field to check on Bell, he started pointing and yelling at Johnson. Stoops was seemingly concerned that the injuries resulted from controversial cut blocks.
NO DALE JR
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a staple of the TaxSlayer Bowl in recent years. The NASCAR star would drive a TaxSlayer-sponsored race car onto the field and take part in the pre-game coin toss. But with Earnhardt getting married to longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann on Saturday, he was unavailable to make an appearance in Jacksonville.
Georgia Tech: Plays the final of three straight games against Southeastern Conference teams when it opens 2017 against Tennessee on Labor Day night in Atlanta.
Kentucky: Opens next season at Southern Mississippi on Sept. 2.