ATHENS – It always comes down to this, doesn’t it? Georgia and Georgia Tech. Whatever conference races they’ve been engaged in, whatever bowl scenarios they’re entertaining, all that is put aside so that they might be able fully engulf themselves in “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate.”
That’s the adoptive nickname for this storied old rivalry, and it’s well-earned.
“It’s always between Tech and Florida,” former Georgia receiver Chris Conley said of the players’ most loathed opponent. “For us Georgia guys, it’s probably Tech. You’ve got to win that one.”
The Bulldogs usually do. Since 1991, Georgia has lost this game only five times, and three of those came in successive years at the end of Jim Donnan’s administration. Mark Richt, Georgia’s previous head coach, was 13-2 against the Yellow Jackets.
Tech last won in 2014, one of two victories coach Paul Johnson recorded in Athens. The Jackets also won between the hedges in 2008, in one of the more devastating upsets in the series.
This year, the teams come in as virtual mirror images. Both have 7-4 records, both are out of their respective conference races and each is seeking to improve their bowl situations. But more than anything, they just want to beat each other.
Here’s what Georgia will have to address to be able to do so:
LIMIT TECH’S OPTIONS
As it always will as long as Johnson is head coach, Tech is among the leading rushing teams in the country. The Yellow Jackets come into this year’s game ranked ninth in the nation at 260.3 yards per game. So at least limiting slow-bleed offensive technique is imperative.
And as is usually the case with true triple option teams, they’re very tough to key on. They have three players who have all rushed for more than 500 yards to date. They are B-back Dedrick Mills (578 yards), A-back Marcus Marshall (569) and quarterback Justin Thomas (552). Thomas can also throw the ball. He has passed for 1,290 yards with 8 touchdowns and just one interception. It’s such a shock when Tech throws it usually results in big gains.
As coach Kirby Smart points out, one of the most difficult aspects of facing a triple-option team is preparing for it in practice. Not many teams utilize that offense anymore, so finding players that can simulate it for the scout team is difficult. Often they will recruit one of the team’s best overall athletes and quickest players from another area to play the quarterback on the scout offense. But replicating the complicated and deceptive ball-handling is almost impossible to do.
Smart has limited experience playing option teams, having faced Georgia Southern just once while at Alabama, and most of defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s experience is in the NFL. So the Bulldogs brought in former UGA defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder as a defensive consultant and he has extensive experience defending the option both against Tech and versus service academies while at Notre Dame. VanGorder was fired by the Fighting Irish after their fourth game this season.
ATTACK THE SECONDARY
Georgia Tech is a solid team in most every respect. The one area that it has shown some vulnerability, however, is in the secondary. The Yellow Jackets come into Saturday’s game ranked 10th in the ACC and 80th nationally in passing defense. They’re allowing opponents 242.5 yards per game through the air. They haven’t been great at getting to opposing quarterbacks either.
This bodes well for the Bulldogs, who have been increasingly more proficient throwing the football in recent weeks, particularly the long ball. Georgia freshman quarterback Jacob Eason has completed passes of 49 or more yards in the last three games and now has thrown for more than 200 yards in six games overall.
In addition to regular targets Terry Godwin and Isaiah McKenzie, Eason has developed an even better rapport with fellow freshmen Isaac Nauta, a tight end, and receiver Riley Ridley, as well as junior college transfer wideout Javon Wims. At the same, he has become more comfortable working through his progressions, such as last week when he hit tailback Nick Chubb on a check-down for a long TD.
Georgia will try to establish the run, as always, but don’t be surprised if it takes a pass-first approach against the Jackets.
WIN SPECIAL TEAMS
One of the reasons Georgia has been able to win its last three games is it was able to stabilize its once-tumultuous special teams operation. The Bulldogs have shown improvement in all phases, including kicking, kick coverage and kick returns.
Isaiah McKenzie returned a punt for a touchdown for the first time this season when he went 82 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette last Saturday. Place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship is now 11-of-13 on field goals after failing to earn the starting job in the season’s first three weeks. Punter Marshall Long is out for the season with a leg injury, but quarterback Brice Ramsey is at least getting the ball out if not necessarily booting it any significant distance.
It’s important that all these trends continue as the Yellow Jackets are a solid on special teams as well. Kicker Harrison Butker is also 11-of-13. And Georgia fans are sure to remember J.J. Green. He started his career as a tailback for the Bulldogs before transferring to Tech and sitting out via the transfer rule last season. Now he’s playing A-back and returning kickoffs at the rate of 27 yards apiece. He’ll be extremely motivated, and the Bulldogs are sure to be as well.