ATHENS – There were a lot of Georgia players who deserved kudos for containing Georgia Tech’s heralded option on Saturday. There were seniors Jonathan Ledbetter and D’Andre Walker, who had 16 tackles between them. There was sophomore Malik Herring, who in his first career start had 5 tackles and led the Bulldogs in tackles for loss. There was any number of defensive players who deserved a trophy, if not just a pat on the back.
But it was Georgia’s scout team offense that received most of the praise from coach Kirby Smart. And those defenders were saying the same thing well before Smart took the podium to discuss their play in the Bulldogs’ 45-21 victory.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Mason Wood, Prather Hudson, Steve Van Tiflin, Erdman, Harris,” Smart said, rattling off the names of the scout team players. “These are the guys that formed the Georgia Tech scout team for the last year, really. And a lot more guys than that. Those are the feature guys who I think if you asked our defensive players they would tell you that practice is brutal. It was really tough. And those guys make it that way. So those guys do a tremendous job.”
Several minutes before Smart spoke, Georgia seniors Jonathan Ledbetter and D’Andre Walker both said the Bulldogs’ scout team “ran that offense better than Tech did.”
The Yellow Jackets (7-5) finished with 219 total yards and just 128 rushing. They came in averaging a national best 353.7 yards per game on the ground.
Don’t let the final score fool you. Tech’s last two scores came in the final three minutes of play against a Georgia defense consisting entirely of backups. The Yellow Jackets called a timeout with 44 seconds remaining to set up a final offensive play in which they threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Brad Stewart.
Before the fourth quarter, when the Bulldogs’ starters all left the game to rest up for next Saturday’s SEC Championship matchup against Alabama, Tech had 103 total yards and seven first downs.
So Georgia’s domination of Tech’s heralded option was thorough and complete. That was a result of repetition, personnel and preparation. By the time the Bulldogs lined up across the field from Tech on Saturday, they said were seeing cut-blocks in their sleep.
“We started practicing against it on Monday; I was tired of it by Tuesday,” sophomore defensive end Malik Herring said. “But that’s because our scout team gave us great looks. We couldn’t ask for anything better than what they did to get us ready.”
Herring was one of the big reasons the Bulldogs performed so well. The sophomore out of Mary Persons High in Forsyth got his first career start on Saturday. Not only did he respond with 5 tackles, but has also got credit for half of a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss.
It was a big moment for Herring, who has played in every game this season but hasn’t played nearly the snaps that he logged on Saturday.
Asked why Herring was chosen to start in this particular game, Smart said, “Fit.”
“He just fit to what they do,” Smart said. “It’s about staying on your feet and being athletic, and Malik embraces that challenge.”
Herring replaced tackle Tyler Clark in the lineup and played outside rather than further inside between the guards and tackles. Herring is smaller than Georgia’s traditional defensive ends, tipping the scales at about 270 pounds. But he’s also extremely quick and agile and has great balance when guards and tackles come flying at his ankles.
But Herring owed his strong performance more to inspiration than preparation. He said he was playing for injured starter David Marshall, who has been out several weeks since undergoing foot surgery.
“I’ve just been putting in the work and effort and not giving up,” Herring said. “I’ve been pushing for David Marshall. He’s out and me and him are real close. So I wanted to do it for him. ‘Cause he’s at his best in a game like this and if he’d been able to play he’d have been out there doing his thing.”
But it wasn’t just about Herring. Smart lauded the play of freshman noseguard Jordan Davis, who vowed to keep Tech’s linemen off the linebackers and did. And Georgia’s defensive backs, who cheated toward the inside of their receiving targets and came up hard and fast to lend run support whenever possible.
Asked about the overall job the Bulldogs were able to do, Herring grinned wide.
“It was perfect,” he said. “We all just bought in to stopping the option. We all got tired of getting cut. We knew we had to stay on our feet and fly to the ball. We just all bought into that and showed it on the field.”
And Herring proved to his teammates he deserved to be on the field more.
“Man, that guy attacked this week like a work week,” said Ledbetter, one of the Bulldogs’ defensive captains. “I’ve never seen that boy work like he worked this week, and it paid off for him today. He had great production in practice and he had production today, chasing the ball all over the place. He’s an athlete and when you’re playing a triple option, you need athletes like that out there who can take away two reads in one. He was able to do that for us today.”
But it wasn’t Herring alone. It was a dozen or so scout-teamers who ran the triple option close to the level that Tech does that Georgia players were offering the defensive game ball.
“We only had three days to work on that and our scout team works hard to give us that kind of look,” Ledbetter said. “Everything we did in this game had to do with that scout-team working their butts off for us and this university.”