AN OPPOSING VIEW
ATHENS — There isn’t a greater authority on Georgia Tech football than Ken Sugiura. The man has been covering the Yellow Jackets for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for going on nine years now, which might be some kind of record for a Tech beat writer.
It can be a tough job.
Sugiura is pretty informative when it comes to child-rearing as well, as he and his wife Robyn are raising 9-, 7- and 5-year-olds in Atlanta, and doing a beautiful job of it. But for the sake of brevity and preparing for the fast-approaching holiday, we’ll limit our discussion today to the Yellow Jackets and their badly-want-to-ruin-Georgia’s-season pursuits.
Sugiura is a great (and often hilarious) follow on Twitter, so be sure to check out his tweets there. And you can see all his good work on the Yellow Jackets in the printed newspaper and on AJC.com’s dedicated page to Georgia Tech athletics.
Without further ado, here’s Sugiura’s sharp and insightful answers to my dull and vague questions:
1. What do you think is the biggest motivation for Georgia Tech, just to beat the Bulldogs because of that whole rivalry thing or because it could literally ruin all of Georgia’s postseason goals and plans?
Sugiura: I think the greater motivation is just to win and beat the archrival and also a team that is very, very good. I’d think it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to win Saturday if Georgia were 6-5. I think knocking Georgia out of the CFP would be an added bonus. My sense is that fans would probably get a lot more mileage out of that than the team.
2. Any theory as to why Paul Johnson apparently beats the Bulldogs only in Athens?
Sugiura: The first one is kind of dry, but three of his four best teams were the 2008, 2014 and 2016 teams, and I guess you could say their counterparts in those years were good Georgia teams, but not great ones. (It bears mention that the 2012 UGA team, one that Johnson was particularly impressed with, steamrolled the Jackets.) Also in those three Tech wins, Georgia has helped – a pick 6 in 2008, the pooched kickoff in 2014, Jacob Eason’s fourth-quarter interception in 2016, among other plays. Tech has been in games at Bobby Dodd (2009 and 2013 in particular) but hasn’t gotten or made enough breaks. To dive into the psychological realm a little bit, his teams typically don’t freeze up on the road. I wonder if there might be something freeing about playing at Sanford Stadium and feeling like you have nothing to lose. The team carries an underdog mentality, and maybe that gets tapped into the most in Athens.
3. I heard Joe Hamilton say he kept his piece of the hedge in a napkin for a few weeks before it dried out and he threw it away? Do you have any interesting stories about what Tech players have done with their pieces of hedge the past four years? And do you believe the Jackets can hold up their end of treaty should they pull off another upset?
Sugiura: I want to say a player once told me he had it in his apartment or dorm and it withered and then he put it in some water and it revived. I think a lot of players hold onto their hedges. I’ll be curious to see what happens if Tech wins, as claiming pieces of hedge is pretty ingrained. But Paul Johnson said this week that he was going to tell players to not do it, and I’d be a little surprised if they bucked him on this one, much as they might want to.
4. It seemed like Tech was slow to get going offensively this season. What was the hold-up, how are the quarterbacks playing now and at what level of rolling would you say the Jackets are at the moment?
Sugiura: I think a few factors were at play at the start of the season. Two things Johnson harps on constantly with the offense are penalties and fumbles, and Tech didn’t do well in either category early. Plus, the offensive line was getting settled and the offense was also getting two new B-backs (fullbacks) into the lineup after KirVonte Benson (All-ACC last year) had a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall was not at his best running the option. That said, they put up 602 yards against USF and 386 against Pitt, so it wasn’t like they were wearing blindfolds.
“But the line is healthier and set (center Kenny Cooper’s return from a foot injury in the spring has been big) and Johnson simplified the scheme a bit. And, while Tech was clearly playing well, the opponents didn’t offer the stiffest competition, as they were either disorganized (Louisville) or thin (Virginia Tech) or not terribly good (North Carolina). Marshall’s play has gotten better and backup Tobias Oliver (a high-school rival of Jake Fromm’s) has given the Jackets an added boost off the bench.
However, Tech hasn’t been nearly as productive in the past two games against Miami and Virginia, rushing for an average of 249 yards after coming into the Miami game at 377. Their defenses are much better and the offense didn’t play as well particularly against Virginia, although the Cavaliers had a good bit to do with that.
What level? On a 1-10 scale, maybe a 7 or 8. The offense is productive and has been pretty efficient but there’s not the sort of home-run power that you’d want to have, particularly against a defense like Georgia’s where you could really use some easy yards and points.
5. This is the annual “what’s up with the Tech defense” question and could you educate the DawgNation readers (and me) on the defensive coordinator incarnations under Coach Johnson?
Sugiura: Nate Woody is Paul Johnson’s fourth defensive coordinator, following Dave Wommack, Al Groh and Ted Roof. Roof left for a co-coordinator job at N.C. State at the end of last season, ending a five-year tenure at his alma mater. The things that Johnson wants most out of the defense is for it to be simple and fast, to get stops and tackles for loss. (I suppose this doesn’t make him unique.) The way Johnson’s offense is – ball-control, efficient, low possessions – a defense that can take risks to score a couple turnovers a game pairs nicely.
Woody, who came from Appalachian State (UGA played against his defense in the 2017 opener. Only Notre Dame, Tennessee, Auburn and Alabama did better in yards-per-play than the Mountaineers had a lower yards-per-play average), runs a 3-4 that is aggressive and relies more on speed and quickness than brawn, which was also a reason that Tech was a fit, as the Jackets typically don’t sign the 340-pound nose tackles that Georgia does. The numbers are not great – they’re tied for second to last in third-down defense and 76th in yards per play – but they’re getting better and have shown a knack for rising to the occasion. They can do more things from a blitz and alignment standpoint than they could at the beginning and it seems like the mistakes are fewer. And the one thing they do is get the ball, usually either by creating pressure on the passer or rallying to the ball. Tech has 24 takeaways, tied for ninth nationally. (A handful were on special teams.)
I think you’ll see a better offensive performance from Tech than last year (226 yards and 4.1 yards per play, both season lows). As always, getting the B-back run game going will be important, and Tech has to do a better job of getting the corners blocked to the ground on plays to the perimeter. Georgia’s corners did a really nice job of staying on their feet last year, which helped Roquan Smith go bananas. I can see Georgia having success on offense as long as the Bulldogs stay patient and hold onto the ball. Returner Mecole Hardman could be an X-factor on kickoff return, where Tech has struggled.
It’s kind of hackneyed, but I think special teams and turnovers will be critical for both teams. I’ve been pretty consistently wrong in predicting this game, either the winner or the points, but I’ll go with Georgia 31, Georgia Tech 24.