JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Dedrick Mills got a shoutout, some head nods and several high-fives as he walked toward the interview room at EverBank Field.
And those came from opposing players.
The freshman was an even bigger hit inside Georgia Tech's locker room and in the stands.
Mills ran for a career-high 169 yards and a touchdown, leading the Yellow Jackets to a 33-18 victory against Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday. It was the seventh-most rushing yards in bowl history, earning Mills the Most Valuable Player trophy and making some forget about his two suspensions this season.
"I think he can be a very special player," coach Paul Johnson said. "He's a very talented young man. We've got to try to help him grow up. Sometimes, you know, at that age, when you're 18, we all didn't make great decisions. It's our job to help him make the right decisions because he's got a bright future if he'll continue to work hard."
Playing without running back Marcus Marshall, who decided to transfer after the regular-season finale, Georgia Tech (9-4) turned to Mills to handle the workload against Kentucky (7-6). The newcomer from nearby Waycross, Georgia, delivered. With dozens of friends and family members in attendance, 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 that tough. It wasn't that tough," Mills said. "Behind the offensive line, running off their blocks, made it easier for me to find holes and get through them."
He got plenty of help, too, as Tech won its fourth consecutive game.
Senior P.J. Davis returned a fumble 38 yards for a touchdown. Fellow linebacker Terrell Lewis blocked a punt late in the first half that set up one of Harrison Butker's four field goals. Thomas added a 21-yard TD run in his final collegiate game.
"It's a great feeling," Thomas said. "Everything has to come to an end one day. Happy it ended like this. Looking forward to see what the future holds."
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have to replace two significant cogs in their 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 return 36 of 44 players on their two-deep roster, and with quarterback Stephen Johnson and running back Benny Snell blossoming late in the season, coach Mark Stoops could have a solid nucleus in place to make another bowl in 2017.
Despite struggling most of the day, the Wildcats had a final shot in the closing minutes. 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 42 yards. Mills scored three plays later to seal Tech's victory.
"Just made an aggressive mistake," Stoops said.
Trailing 10-3, Kentucky was threatening to score when Jojo Kemp was stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the 5 late in the second quarter. Tech responded with a 94-yard drive that included a fourth-and-inches conversion from their 15. Thomas' TD run capped the drive and 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 52-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
Stoops was angered that officials didn't restart the clock after Thomas' first-down completion to Brad Stewart.
"I believe there was just some confusion," Stoops said. "Maybe some of them thought it was out of bounds when he was inbounds. They later told me he was inbounds. I just couldn't understand why they would, with one second, give them as much time as they wanted to line up."
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.