ATHENS – Welcome to Stop Number 4 on Georgia’s 2017 Revenge Tour. This one takes us to Atlanta and Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.
In the words of a late and esteemed former Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, the Yellow Jackets’ “tore out” the Bulldogs’ heart and “stomped that sucker flat” last year when they executed a dramatic 28-27 upset at Sanford Stadium. It appeared Georgia had that game well in hand. But then a late interception helped Georgia Tech score 14 points in the final the 6:28, and the Bulldogs’ regular season ended with a 7-5 record.
Several of Georgia’s 31 seniors – and most notably “The Big Four” – cited that game as one of their motivations for coming for their final year of eligibility. Otherwise, they would have left UGA with a losing record (1-2) against the program’s most hated rival. No Georgia senior class has done such a thing since 2000.
The No. 7-ranked Bulldogs (10-1, 7-1 SEC) are already 3-0 on what has come to be called the Revenge Tour. So far this season, they have avenged losses they had in 2016 with wins over Tennessee (41-0), Vanderbilt (45-14) and Florida (42-7). So a win over Georgia Tech on Saturday would make them a perfect 4-and-oh on make-goods. There will be no other opportunities beyond this one.
“That was one of the things I thought about personally, something I needed to come back and finish,” senior Lorenzo Carter said. “I had unfinished business. I didn’t want to leave having a losing record to Tech. Right now I do. All the seniors do. So, we wanted to come back play our ball and finish strong.”
The state rivalry game that has come to be called “Clean Old Fashioned Hate” is falling below the radar of lot of the other ones being conducted across the country, namely that one just to the west of us known as “The Iron Bowl.” Georgia Tech has had a hard time of it this season. The Yellow Jackets fell to 5-5 with the loss Saturday to Duke, so they’re still looking to get bowl eligible.
Hence, there will be a noon kickoff on Saturday rather than something in one of the prime-time slots Georgia has frequented so often this season. But the outcome remains very important to the participants, and there are real risks on the line for the Bulldogs.
Yes, they will be in the SEC Championship Game regardless of the outcome. But a loss might well cost them a shot in the national playoffs whether or not they managed to secure the conference title.
Here’s what Georgia will have to do to prevent such a travesty:
Fight fire with fire
Georgia Tech enters the Saturday game the same way it does every year – as one of the nation’s leaders in rushing the football. The Yellow Jackets average 319.3 yards on the ground every game, which places them fifth among FBS teams.
But as Duke showed last week that sometimes the best path to victory is to try to beat Georgia Tech at its own game. The Blue Devils rushed for 319 yards against the Yellow Jackets last week, and they rode that strategy to a 43-20 win.
Last time we checked, Georgia’s running backs are of a better pedigree than those who play for Duke. The Bulldogs are led by Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The senior tailbacks are looking to become the first two tailbacks in UGA history to rush for more 1,000 yards in the same season. Chubb already has 1,045 yards, and Michel needs 182 to run down that mark.
Georgia is second in the SEC in rushing offense with an average of 267.5 yards per game. If the Bulldogs can match that against the Yellow Jackets, not only will they be successfully moving the ball on offense, but they’ll also be keeping Georgia Tech’s confounding option offense sidelined in the process.
Be ever vigilant, DBs
It goes without saying that it is paramount to slow down Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack. The key words there are “slow down.” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said himself that “nobody stops these guys.” The Yellow Jackets are going to get their yards, and they’re probably going to score a few times. They average 30.2 points per game.
Georgia Tech enters the game with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. One of them is quarterback TaQuon Marshall (1,074 yards, 17 TDs). The other is B-back Kirvonte Benson (1,009, 6). Georgia must keep either from having a huge game.
But as important as it is to stop the Yellow Jackets’ running game, in many ways their passing game can be even more problematic. Because defenses spend so much attention and energy on defending Georgia Tech’s many run options, they can often be lulled to sleep when it comes to defending the pass. And when the Yellow Jackets do throw the ball, it tends to go for big gains. They’re averaging 21.7 yards per catch.
Georgia needs to look no further back than last season for evidence of this. On Georgia Tech’s two fourth-quarter scoring drives to win last season, it completed three passes. That included a long of 38 yards and a short of 16.
That fact has left the Bulldogs’ defenders talking a lot this week about what they all “eye discipline.” Essentially that means being aware of where the ball is at all time and never losing sight of one’s “keys.” It can be a frustrating endeavor and can be a real neutralizer when it comes to athleticism. But it’s an absolute necessity.
Turn loose Jake Fromm
When it’s working, running the football is the surest and most risk-free way to advance the football. It has been Georgia’s mode of choice more than 70 percent of the time this season, and that has served the team well, having won in 10-of-11 contests.
But as the stakes increase going forward, the Bulldogs have to demonstrate they can throw the ball, as well. And not just in third-down, have-to-have-it situations. Georgia and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm have actually been pretty good in that regard.
But as the stakes continue to rise, the Bulldogs have to be less predictable on early downs. Generally, they run on first and second down and pass on third. It wasn’t until they broke a pattern of nine consecutive run calls on first down against Kentucky that the Bulldogs finally began to move the football.
The reluctance to do so probably has more to do with Fromm still being a freshman and lacking elite arm strength. But with 11 games under his belt, it’s time to show more trust and, in turn, give him a chance to build confidence.
Georgia should have a decided edge in talent against Georgia Tech’s secondary. Senior split end Javon Wims (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) is a matchup problem for the best of defensive backs. So is the speed of Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley.
As much as the Bulldogs might like to just run the ball down Georgia Tech’s throats, there are bigger stakes at hand this season. They need to prove to themselves, if not to upcoming opponents, that they’ll make teams pay for selling out against the run and that they’ll throw on any and every down, no matter the down or distance.
Special plays on special teams
For 11 games, Hardman has been tantalizingly close to breaking loose for a touchdown. That was apparent when he had nearly 200 yards in returns against Auburn, and he had another 81 yards in limited opportunities against Kentucky last week.
Against Georgia Tech, he should get many more chances. The Yellow Jackets have recorded touchbacks on only 10 of 55 kickoffs. Likewise, opponents have made fair catches only 13 times on 45 punts.
That’s a lot of hidden yardage just waiting to be snatched up by the Bulldogs, not to mention scoring opportunities. There are few plays more devastating to an opponent than a special teams touchdown. To finally get one against Georgia Tech could provide some momentum for Georgia not only in this game, but going forward as well.