College Football

NCAA Football: Jackets rally past Knights for Gasparilla Bowl victory


Georgia Tech players celebrate their Gasparilla Bowl victory over Central Florida. Photo by Michael Fettig.

After spotting Central Florida a two-touchdown lead, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets dominated the final three quarters to earn a 30-17 victory in the 2023 Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl on Dec. 22 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fl.

The Yellow Jackets scored the game’s final 27 points, using a relentless run game that wore down the Knights in the second half.

“Bowl games are a lot like the first game of the season,” said Georgia Tech head coach Brent Key. “There are a lot of unknowns after having three weeks to prepare. We made adjustments and the players trusted enough to make them.”

Redshirt sophomore running back Jamal Haynes ran for a career-high 128 yards on 18 carries (7.1 average) to pace the Yellow Jackets’ 284-yard rushing attack. Haynes was named the game’s MVP, finishing the season with 1,059 yards, Georgia Tech’s first 1,000-yard rusher in six years.

Recruited as a dual threat quarterback, Haynes made the switch to running back this season.

“The transition was special,” said Haynes. “Of course, you are always gonna have a little doubt about how it’s gonna go playing wise but at the end of the day, the coaches believed in me. He told me just put down my head and go to work. And that’s exactly what I did.”

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Haynes King, a Texas A&M transfer, rushed for one touchdown and threw for another to spark the comeback. In doing so, King set a program record for touchdowns accounted for (37) in one season.

Georgia Tech running back Jamal Haynes breaks off a big run in the Yellow Jackets 30-17 victory over Central Florida at the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, Fla. Photo by Michael Fettig.

King scored on a 5-yard run late in the second quarter and then connected with Malik Rutherford on a 41-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the first half to tie the game at 17. He threw for 87 yards to finish the season with 2,842 passing yards, fourth-most in a single season in program history and most in 22 years.

His 27 touchdown passes are second-most for a single season in program history. Joe Hamilton threw for 29 TD passes in 1999 to set the record that still stands. King’s 3,578 yards of total offense are also second all-time in program history behind Hamilton’s 3,794, also set in 1999.

Yellow Jackets kicker Aiden Birr booted field goals of 29 and 38 yards, and running back Dontae Smith added a 1-yard touchdown run as Georgia Tech owned the second half and pulled away, controlling the football with 23 straight running plays to end the game (not including kneel-downs).

“We got into a possession where you start looking at possessions and time on the clock,” said Key. “You also look at timeouts. We had to eat the clock and Haynes did a great job looking at the clock and snapping it with one second.”

But the notoriously quick-starting Knights, in typical fashion, had things going their way early. Central Florida rolled up 243 yards of offense and 17 points in its first four possessions. For the year, the Knights outscored the opposition 127-57 in the first quarter.

Central Florida jumped in front on touchdown passes of 23 and 17 yards from quarterback John Rhys Plumlee to Javon Baker and Kobe Hudson respectively. Baker turned in career-highs with nine catches for 173 yards. He was the only receiver in the Big 12 this season with more than 1,000 receiving yards (1,139).

Central Florida quarterback John Rhys Plumlee runs for yardage against Georgia Tech in the Gasparilla Bowl. Photo by Michael Fettig.

The Knights’ second touchdown culminated in their longest drive of the season, a 98-yard march in 10 plays. Running back RJ Harvey played a key role in Central Florida’s early success, rushing for 58 of his team-high 120 yards in the first quarter, including a 17-yard scamper. Harvey finished the season with 1,416 yards, the second-most in a single season in program history.

Kicker Colton Boomer added a 27-yard field goal and with 5:46 left to play in the second quarter, the Knights held a seemingly comfortable 17-3 lead.

But Georgia Tech battled back to win for the fourth time in its final six games this season. The 14-point deficit was the largest the Yellow Jackets have ever come back from in a bowl game. The Yellow Jackets defense limited Central Florida to just 134 yards over the final two quarters.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Kyle Efford led the charges, recording a team-high nine tackles. Despite not breaking into the Yellow Jackets starting lineup until the seventh game of the season, Efford became the first freshman to lead Georgia Tech in tackles (81) in more than 20 years.

In a battle of 6-6 teams, Georgia Tech secured its first winning season since 2018 and first bowl victory since a 33-18 victory over Kentucky in the 2016 Gator Bowl.

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