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Smelter, Thomas lead Tech to season opening win

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets wide receiver DeAndre Smelter (15) carries the ball against the Wofford Terriers during the second quarter at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets wide receiver DeAndre Smelter (15) carries the ball against the Wofford Terriers during the second quarter at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA - With less than a minute to play in the opening half of Saturday’s season opener, Georgia Tech found itself in the unenviable position of trailing by a point to Wofford. After a nice kickoff return and some time to think in the halftime locker room, things got back to normal for the Yellow Jackets.

DeAndre Smelter had a career-high 132 receiving yards and caught two second-half touchdowns as Tech pulled away in a 38-19 victory at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Wofford (0-1) had life after Octavius Harden scored on a four-yard run to make it a 24-19 game with 9:49 remaining. That capped a 16-play drive that shaved over nine minutes off the clock for the Southern Conference school. But Tech, which had 16 plays of 11 yards or more, followed with a quick, three-play jaunt, highlighted by a 65-yard hook up between quarterback Justin Thomas and Broderick Snoddy to get to the Wofford 11. Zach Laskey scored on the next play and the Yellow Jackets had some breathing room at 31-19. Thomas, making his first career start, passed for 282 yards, 198 of which came in the second half, and added 71 on the ground.

“We hit some explosion plays, we had some big plays,” said Tech coach Paul Johnson. “(Thomas) settled down a little bit, he had a shaky first half. I thought in the second half he settled down.”

Wofford hit one big, scoring play to stun the hosts late in the first half. Backed up to its own eight-yard line on third-and-long with about a half-minute to go, Terriers’ halfback Ray Smith exploded for a 92-yard touchdown run, not only the fifth-longest scoring run in program history, but the longest rushing attempt for an opponent in Tech’s history.

That gave Wofford a 9-7 lead, but it turned out to be the only cushion the Terriers would enjoy as the defense couldn’t keep Tech off the scoreboard on the ensuing possession. Jamal Golden took the kickoff 40 yards to midfield, and on the second play of the drive, Thomas hit Tony Zenon for a 33-yard completion to the 13.

“That was a nice return,” Johnson said of Golden’s run. “Any time you can change field position it’s great, you got a short field it’s going to be huge.”

Harrison Butker, who earlier in the half had missed wide right on a 31-yard field goal, moved a yard closer and nailed a 30-yarder that gave the Yellow Jackets a 10-9 halftime lead.

“You had your share (of) big plays at big moments,” Wofford coach Mike Ayers said of his team. “But Georgia Tech seemed to answer each time.”

On the Yellow Jackets’ first possession of the second half, Thomas connected with Zenon for a 22-yard completion on fourth-and-five to the Wofford 19. On the next play, Thomas and Smelter hooked up on a beautiful slant pattern for a 19-yard touchdown and it was 17-9.

“To Justin and Tony’s credit, they executed nicely and caught the ball,” Johnson said of the fourth down play.

Wofford’s David Marvin booted a 51-yard field goal, the second-longest in school history, to make it a five-point game, but Smelter struck again. The senior caught a pass from Thomas on the first play from scrimmage near the right sideline and cornerback Bernard Williams tried to wrap up the 6-3, 222-pound wideout. The 5-9, 185-pound Williams wasn’t successful and Smelter broke free, running towards the opposite sideline and scoring to put Tech up 24-12 with about four minutes left in the third.

“I just expected to come out there and play hard,” said Smelter. “I know that if everybody does their job then we have a good chance at being productive.”

“We got to find a way to get DeAndre the ball, he’s a really good player,” Johnson added.

The Yellow Jackets wasted no time taking the lead with a dominant, nine-play opening drive, averaging more than eight yards per snap to go up 7-0 with 8:16 left in the first.

Thomas had a key, 16-yard scamper on third-and-five, Zenon added a 14-yard run to move Tech to the Wofford 4, and Laskey followed with the first of his rushing scores from four yards.

Wofford answered on the ensuing drive to pull to within four points late in the first. Terriers’ quarterback Evan Jacks took a draw and ran for 20 of his 91 yards to get deep into Tech territory, and though the drive stalled at the 22, Marvin booted a 39-yard field goal and it was a 7-3 game.

While Tech heads to New Orleans to play Tulane September 6, Wofford has the week off before its home opener September 13 against North Greenville.