There were 32 seconds left when Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas brought the Yellow Jackets to the line for a third-and-6 play on the Georgia Southern 13-yard line. You presumably know what happened next, but here’s a closer look at how it unfolded. You can watch the replay here or here.
Georgia Tech lines up with A-back B.J. Bostic in the slot and Deon Hill in the spot. Georgia Southern has three down linemen, linebackers flanking them and middle linebacker Edwin Jackson walking up to the line.
At the snap, Jackson is coming right up the gap between center Freddie Burden and right guard Shaquille Mason. Georgia Southern caught Tech here – Burden engaged nose tackle Jay Ellison and left guard Trey Braun and left tackle Bryan Chamberlain double teamed end Quaun Daniels, giving Jackson a free run. Hill remains practically stationary. The linebackers (on the left side is actually an end, Bernard Dawson, at the 11 at the top hashmark; the other is Antwione Williams at the 10 between the hashmarks) seem to be reading Thomas before reacting.
Jackson, at the 15-yard line and charging hard, has a bead on Thomas. Hill is still waiting. At the snap, B-back Zach Laskey turned left to help with protection and not in a position to pick up Jackson.
Thomas evades Jackson by spinning away to his right. Hill finally slips out of the backfield. It is called a delay route, in which he fakes a blocking attempt. “He holds for a count or two and then releases, trying to get the linebacker to scrape or pop,” coach Paul Johnson said. “In the case of that play, the linebacker (Jackson) blitzed. So when he blitzed, and Justin was able to avoid him, (Hill) had to drag coming out of the A-back (slot). And then we’re supposed to have a dig (route) behind it with the receiver in case the safety comes down and jumps the drag.” (A dig route is a “down and in” route in backyard football parlance. It’s what DeAndre Smelter is running at the top of the screen. The safety in this instance is Antonio Glover, at the 2-yard line.)
Thomas evades Jackson by spinning away to his right. Hill finally slips out of the backfield. This is the playmaking element that Thomas brings to the position. Johnson often comments on the team’s small margin for error. In this case, the offensive line missed a blitz pickup. Thomas’ evasiveness covered up for the missed blitz pick-up, expanding the margin for error. “If you’ve got a guy that’s immobile, he’s probably not going to get away,” Johnson said. “Justin made a nice play. You hope that your quarterback doesn’t get tackled every time somebody pops through. You have to give him credit. He extended it and made a good play.”
Thomas has eluded Jackson and rolls right. Hill begins his drag route underneath coverage. Glover, at the 2-yard line, had been in a backpedal but now reverses direction. It won’t prove consequential, but at the top of the screen, the cornerback defending Smelter has lost his balance and is further on the wrong side to stay with Smelter.
Thomas continues to roll away from Jackson. However, that introduces the next obstacle. Mason (70, at the 16) had been angling lineman Justice Ejike to the sideline to protect Thomas in the pocket. Now, as Thomas goes to the sideline, Ejike can peel off and pursue. The same holds for Dawson, who had lined up at the left linebacker spot and was being parried by right tackle Chris Griffin (72, on the line of scrimmage stripe). Had the blitz been picked up and Hill received the ball earlier, he would have about seven yards of space.
With Dawson and Ejike closing yard and Jackson pursuing from behind, Thomas delivers to Hill. In the path of the pass, Griffin ducks his head to make sure he doesn’t end up on SportsCenter Not Top 10.
The next critical element of the play. Glover, the safety, is about a step away from Hill, who is catching the pass. With no help behind him, Glover makes a play on the ball rather than try to tackle Hill.
The next critical element of the play. Glover, the safety, is about a step away from Hill, who is catching the pass. With no help behind him, Glover chooses to make a play on the ball rather than try to tackle Hill.
Hill has the ball secured as Glover tries to make a play at the ball, which leaves him out of position to make a tackle. A strong tackle might have either jarred the ball loose for an incomplete pass or left Tech in a fourth-and-short situation. On his radio show Monday, coach Paul Johnson said he would have gone for it on fourth-and-1, which obviously would have put the game in the balance.
Good effort by Smelter to shield safety Matt Dobson from Hill. “It was a play that we practiced a lot this week,” Hill said. “With the flow of the linebacker, we wanted to be patient at that position, at A-back, and wait for our moment, a few counts, to get across the field and find an open void. Justin made a great play. Justin made a great play, and we had great protection from the line, as well. Everybody did their job. Team effort.”
You have to see the clip to appreciate this fully, but look closely: The student section is celebrating. Hill is about to give high fives to students in the front row. (I might be wrong, but I want to say Stephen Hill was penalized for doing something similar against Western Carolina in 2011. Not saying that was the right call, or that Hill should have been penalized, but just pointing it out.) Hill’s teammates are running to celebrate with him. Cameras are focused on Hill. In the center of the shot, maybe 10 feet from Hill, Buzz appears to be … looking down the tunnel. If there’s a penalty for the opposite of excessive celebration, this would have been a most merited instance.