Here is what Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and three of his players said Friday going into today’s TaxSlayer Bowl against Kentucky.
THE MODERATOR: We are excited to have Georgia Tech here. It’s been a great week. We’ll open this up with Coach Johnson giving an opening comment, then we’ll take questions.
COACH JOHNSON: Thank you, good morning. Let me just start out by thanking all the TaxSlayer Bowl people. The week has gone by so quickly, everything is well-planned, well thought out. Everybody from Georgia Tech that’s been involved has had a great time.
As we get closer to approaching the game, we know that we’re excited to have a chance to play against the University of Kentucky. Mark and his staff have done a great job this year, had a tremendous finish to the season. We’re looking forward to seeing how we measure up against them on Saturday morning.
It’s been a great week so far. Hopefully we can continue on Saturday.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll go ahead and take questions.
Q. Paul, could you talk a little bit about what the three players up there on the platform have meant to the program in their four or five years they’ve been here.
COACH JOHNSON: Well, I think these three guys are certainly special, just like all our guys, our seniors on the team. They were elected captains by their teammates, which I don’t think that you can have any higher honor than that, that your teammates choose you to represent them.
They all in their own way have been just outstanding players for us. If you start with Justin, who has been a three-year starter at quarterback, really been kind of the face of the program for the last three years. Had a tremendous career. Some highs, from the MVP in the Orange Bowl game two years ago, three years ago if you count this one, to a subpar season for us a year ago, to this year trying to finish the second half strong. Certainly he’s been a big part of that.
Pat has been a mainstay on our defense for a couple years. Came in as a defensive end. Was willing to move, moved over to defensive tackle, whatever he needed to do for the team. Has been a leader over there.
Then Harrison, he came in four years ago. Going into the game, he’s tied as the all-time leading scorer in Georgia Tech history. Hopefully we can find a way to get him over the hump on Saturday.
I joked with him during practice and told him we were going to go for two all the time (smiling). Hopefully we can find a way of getting in the end zone or have him kick a field goal because he’s certainly very deserving of that.
Like all our seniors, we still have a really young team. We’ll have 17 or 16 starters back next year. These seniors, probably 12 of them have played, and these three have been the mainstay of our team.
Q. For the players and coach. The bowl system about this time of year comes under criticism for having too many games, that the Playoffs are making the rest of the bowls meaningless. After missing a bowl game last year, what does playing in any bowl game, this in particular, mean to you?
HARRISON BUTKER: Personally I’m very excited to play in the TaxSlayer Bowl. It’s been awesome. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. Yeah, I’m excited to be here. Last year we weren’t able to make a bowl game. I’m grateful we’re here right now. I’m looking forward to the game tomorrow.
PATRICK GAMBLE: Like Harrison said, grateful to be here and play in this bowl game. Definitely means a lot to us, because we didn’t go to a bowl last year. We get to play an extra game with our teammates, finish the season with nine wins. It means a lot to me.
JUSTIN THOMAS: I guess for me, since we’ve been here, we’ve been to a bowl game every year, except last year. It was kind of tough watching other games knowing you’re not going to be able to play.
Just going in, being able to be here, have another opportunity to spend with your teammates and the guys you’ve been with for a while for the last time, that’s kind of the special moment about having bowl games.
I think it’s greatly appreciated that we get to have one more game for our season. Shouldn’t be any other way.
COACH JOHNSON: I’ll just kind of second what each of these guys said.
I think the biggest thing to me is you get to spend another week, actually if you go through practice, two or three weeks, then the trip with a football team. As I tell our guys every year, when you start really in the spring, every team is brand-new. These guys get to play one more game with their teammates. We get one more time to be around them to compete with coaches, with players.
Really, when you’re in this profession, it sounds hokie sometimes, but it is kind of like a family. You’re surrounded with your family kind of like on a mini vacation with a job to do at the end.
We’ve had a great time this week. I think our guys have really enjoyed it. I can’t say enough good things about what’s happened.
Q. Coach, you’ve had great success with your offense at a time when the rules almost beg you to throw the ball. Why did you decide to stay with this and what you like about it so much?
COACH JOHNSON: I think through the years, we really started doing this in 1985, and we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had some really good players and had a lot of success. There really wasn’t any reason to change.
I think that no matter what you do, you have to have some idea how to fix it and some idea what you want to do when the other team does X, Y or Z. We feel like we’ve been doing this long enough that sometimes we can have an answer or two.
There’s an old adage that physical superiority cancels all theory sometimes. But for the most part I haven’t looked in the last year or so, but one of our assistants looked it up. I think after the ’14 season, which would have been 29 years, we averaged 35 or 36 points a game, and about 470 yards. So it’s been pretty good for us.
Q. Coach and Patrick, Kentucky’s running game gets a lot of attention. When you look at their offense, the wildcat, what do you see overall and what concerns you the most prepares for Saturday?
COACH JOHNSON: I think their offensive line gets overlooked a little bit. I think they’re very physical up front. They have three really good runningbacks.
Once their starting quarterback got hurt, not to take anything away from him, because he’s an outstanding player, but I think it kind of helped their team because they came up with a really good scheme for the personnel they had. I think they utilized the backs very well. It also plays into shortening the game for their defense and a lot of things.
The biggest thing is trying to, like every week, limit the big plays. They do a great job with their wildcat stuff. Their quarterback is very capable of throwing the ball when he has to. They’ve got receivers that can get downfield. It will be a tough matchup for our defense.
PATRICK GAMBLE: Like Coach Johnson said, the offensive line is pretty good. After watching them on film, they are very physical. It’s going to take a good game out of us. We’re going to have to play our technique well, play gap-style football in order to stop the run, because that is a big part of their game.
Like Coach Johnson said, they have some good players and we have to play well on defense.
Q. Paul, this 11:00 start is different for this bowl game. You have had a lot of noon kickoffs. Is the 11:00 factor going to be any great difference or obstacle to overcome on game day? As a parent of teenagers, how do you get a hundred teenagers out of bed that early to go play a football game?
COACH JOHNSON: Hopefully it’s not going to be a factor for us. We’d like to play at 8:00 if they want to move it up.
We scrimmaged during the spring at 9:00 every day. I love noon games. I love early morning games because you don’t have to sit around all day and wait and anticipate.
Hopefully we’ll be ready at 11:00. I don’t think that will be a factor for either team really.
Q. For the players, what has it been like playing for Coach Johnson for the last four or five years? I’m sure it’s tough at times, but I’m sure there’s a side of coach we don’t see.
COACH JOHNSON: Why do you think it could be tough at times (smiling)?
Q. Just reading message boards. I’d love to hear both sides of it, the hard and maybe the part that’s encouraging, the humor we don’t see.
HARRISON BUTKER: I’ve enjoyed playing under Coach Johnson. Being a kicker, it’s a little different. Coach Johnson might have yelled at me once, in the Duke game my freshman year. Other than that, he hasn’t said a word to me on the field. I appreciate that a lot. As a kicker, you want to focus on the kick, I don’t think yelling will help that much. Coach Johnson is an old school coach. He’s a hard coach, I really like that about him. I’ve appreciated Coach Johnson the four years I’ve been here.
PATRICK GAMBLE: Like Harrison said, I appreciate it. Definitely enjoy playing under Coach Johnson. He talks to us every day about sacks and tackles. I was joking with my friend Rook, got as many sacks as he does (laughter). It’s definitely been a pleasure. Unlike Harrison, we get yelled at (smiling).
It’s been a pleasure, man. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing in the world. I stand by my decision I made four or five years ago. Definitely been a pleasure for me.
JUSTIN THOMAS: I’m very appreciative. Since day one I stepped on campus, he’s been truthful with me 100%. Never backed down on his word. He’s not going to sugarcoat nothing with you. He’s going to run things how he wants to. He expects perfection out of all of us. Even on wins, he might be upset that we didn’t win how we should have won.
That’s how it should be. You kind of accept success even though it should be better. That’s kind of what I liked about him. I can go in his office anytime and talk to him, even if it’s not about football. We have a relationship over the time. I’m happy with the decision I made.
Q. Paul, this is Mark’s first bowl game. In your experience, what does a win in a bowl game do for your program going into the off-season, especially when you’re trying to build a program like Mark is trying to do at Kentucky?
COACH JOHNSON: I think like any game, everybody is competitive and you want to win. You got to try to win.
I think that you finish the season at least with a good taste in your mouth and you can use that going into the off-season conditioning, spring practice. Maybe it might help a little bit in recruiting, although recruiting is usually a year or two in advance. This year is pretty much done before you ever get to a bowl game.
But I just think that anytime, if you’re competitive, you play you want to try to win. That’s going to be your last game with this group, with the seniors. That’s kind of what’s important to me.
Q. Paul, looking at some of the early games, bowl games that have been played, there’s been a lot of scoring. What do you expect from this game?
COACH JOHNSON: Who knows. I think it will be over quick.
I think anytime teams lay off for four weeks, you try to do the best you can to prepare. You hope that your team’s motivated and they want to be there and they show up to play.
If I could predict what was going to happen in the games, you could probably make a pretty good living doing other things.
I have no idea. I think the neat thing about it is that we have a plan that we’ve worked on that we’re going to go in and try to run the best we can on both offense and defense and special teams. I’m sure Kentucky does, as well. The guys will have to go out there and play and we’ll see who can execute the best.
Normally if you think it’s going to be a high-scoring game, it’s 6-3, and vice versa. That’s usually kind of the way it works.
Q. Justin, what is it like being part of such a unique rushing attack in your system, being at the helm of that?
JUSTIN THOMAS: I mean, I guess to me it’s just like any other thing. I guess it’s different. Teams don’t like to prepare for it. They can’t be right. If we go out there and do our job, it can bust every time.
Just knowing that, we have a counterattack for anything that anybody can do. It was tough at first to kind of get used to how things were run. Over time it became easier.
Q. Patrick, what is it going to be like stopping their dynamic backfield rushing attack?
PATRICK GAMBLE: It’s going to take a good game, executing. We’re going to have to execute our game plan well, man. Anytime somebody get out of their gaps, they got a chance to break one wide open. It’s going to take a game of executing, playing gap football.
Q. What is a play you will always remember that you made, what is the play you wish you could have back?
HARRISON BUTKER: Obviously the 53-yard field goal against Georgia was my favorite play. A play I could get back, probably the Notre Dame game. That was the first game of my junior season. I missed two field goals in that. It was a big game. I wish I could have done better. Yeah, probably those two games.
PATRICK GAMBLE: I’d say the Florida State, blocked the kick. That will be a play I always remember.
A play I can get back? I don’t really have a play. I’d say a game. I’d rather have the North Carolina game back. I think we could have played better, I could have played better in that game, so…
JUSTIN THOMAS: I guess a play to remember would be the Orange Bowl game when I had that one run.
A play to get back, I’d say last year, the Georgia game. I threw a pick while we were in the red zone, we could have went up. Kind of changed the whole game. But, you know.
Q. Coach and Justin, you talked about Kentucky’s offense. What have you seen on their defense on video that has impressed you?
COACH JOHNSON: Well, I think they’re really athletic at the second level. The two linebackers, I’m a numbers guy, I’m terrible with names, but the kid from Youngstown, 34, is a really good player. The outside linebacker, 41, is a really good player. They have a couple really good safeties.
Up front, I think they’re very physical guys who try to play their responsibilities and try to cancel gaps. It will be interesting to see how they play.
We had the opportunity to play against Mark in the ACC championship game when he was at Florida State. They’re a 4-3 team. Now they’re a 3-4 team. We’ll see which one they bring to the table. It will be interesting when we line up for the first snap, see where they are.
JUSTIN THOMAS: I guess it will be a typical SEC defense. Big, fast, run sideline to sideline. We have to come out, execute, do our part on the offensive side.