ATHENS – Coaches will always tell you that they never look ahead, that they never look past the next opponent.
That hasn’t been the case with Georgia in regard to Georgia Tech.
In fact, the Bulldogs have been preparing for the Yellow Jackets at least once a week throughout the entire season and several times during the preseason, as well.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who had let that slip a couple of times throughout the season, made no attempt to cover that up Monday during his weekly news conference. He explained that the Bulldogs have been taking a couple of periods in the Monday practices all season to concentrate on defending the Yellow Jackets’ confounding triple-option offense. In addition, UGA spent some time working on Tech, along with a few other future opponents, during the bye week in mid-October.
“I felt like you have to familiarize yourself (with it),” Smart said. “Really the players, if nothing more than your scout team, can only be so efficient doing something they don’t do all the time. But they can be as efficient as possible. So those Mondays have been really critical for them. Those Mondays have been critical for our young players who haven’t been exposed to it. We have worked really hard on that. And then we spent some time in the off week.”
It seems that Smart has always been giving the Yellow Jackets a little extra attention. That happened even last year, before Tech went to Sanford Stadium and served the Bulldogs with a gut-punching 28-27 loss.
Smart had brought in Brian VanGorder, then not long fired as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, as a special consultant a couple of weeks before UGA hosted Tech.
How much it helped is unclear. The Yellow Jackets weren’t necessarily the ground-game juggernaut they can be sometimes – they rushed for 226 yards on 42 carries – but they managed to score 14 points in the final 6:28 to pull off the upset.
Suffice it to say, Georgia wants to do better this year. While Georgia Tech 5-5 (4-4 ACC) is experiencing a down year, its offense remains as potent and troublesome as always. The Yellow Jackets are averaging 319.3 yards rushing and 30.2 points per game. Despite playing only 10 games so far this season, they feature two 1,000-yard rushers in quarterback TaQuon Marshall (1,074–17 TDs) and B-back KirVonte Benson (1,009–6)
What makes them particularly difficult to handle is their style is unlike any other team Georgia plays all year. Smart went as far as referring to Tech’s offense as “a dinosaur.”
“They’re not the norm any more,” Smart said. “People don’t prepare to play that. When you think about high school football, it used to be that people ran the triple (option) in high school and a lot of the most successful programs in this state had been a part of that. It’s slowly gone the other way, where teams, it’s almost like a dinosaur, people don’t do it anymore. So people don’t know how to defend it. So it’s challenging.”
Hence, Smart’s decision to work on it a little all year as opposed to just a lot in the final week of the regular season.
Georgia’s defense has been very good against the run this season. It has been very good against everything, actually. The Bulldogs rank fifth in the nation in total defense, giving up just 276 yards per game. Only Alabama, with 87.4 yards per game, has given up fewer rush yards in the SEC than UGA (105.6 ypg).
Then again, the Bulldogs haven’t defended anything like this all season. Probably the closest thing they’ve seen was what Auburn does, and that was more run-pass option than pure option.
“It’s tough,” said senior outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, who had eight tackles against the Jackets a year ago. “The triple-option, you’ve got to read your keys and have eye discipline and all that.”
Defenders hate facing it because all the reads it requires negate any edge they might have in athleticism. Meanwhile, much of the offensive line’s work is predicated on cut blocking. That means defensive linemen and linebackers can expect a lot of contact below the waist. Ankle, knee and foot injuries aren’t uncommon.
“You’ve got to keep running your feet; if you don’t you can get rolled up,” said Georgia noseguard John Atkins, who will be facing it for the fourth straight year. “You try your best to stay (upright) but you’re going to get tweaked sometimes.”
Cut blocks and a gashing run game are just part of the issue. Since the Jackets run the ball 84.2 percent of the time, their passing game tends to be particularly effective – and potentially devastating – when they unleash it. Tech receivers average 21.7 yards per catch. Ricky Jeune has five touchdowns, including an 80-yarder against Virginia Tech two weeks ago.
Tech’s big-pass potential came to roost against the Bulldogs last year. While the Jackets executed run-oriented scoring drives of 94 and 46 yards for their come-from-behind victory last year, it was pass plays of 23-, 39- and 16 yards that did the most damage.
So what’s the remedy?
“Eye discipline,” Smart said Monday. “It’s what got us last year. You don’t have good eye discipline, you don’t have good eye transfer, they can get you. And they watch every play. They know when you mess up. It doesn’t take them long to figure out, ‘whoops, he’s not looking at the right thing,’ and then they expose you. And you say, ‘well, the alternative is don’t be so aggressive with them,’ but you have to stop the run. They do a good job with what they do.”
Georgia’s defense has done exceptional work this season. We’ll find out Saturday if a season’s worth of preparation makes a difference.
“They’re playing a unique style of offense and they got to buy into that, they’ve got to embrace it,” Smart said of Georgia’s defense. “I think our seniors will. As a matter of fact, I know they will. They have already talked to me about some ways we’re going to practice and things we’re going to do to help with that. So, I’m excited about that part and they’re ready to take the challenge on.”