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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Scouting the Jackets

I exchanged a few quick questions with the Telegraph's Georgia Tech beat writer Coley Harvey to get a rundown of some of the essential Yellow Jackets info heading into Saturday's rivalry game. You can read more of Coley's Tech coverage HERE. Coley and I will also be hosting a UGA-Tech chat at on Friday. You can submit questions to either of us now, and we'll answer them on Friday.

In the meantime, Coley answers a few of my questions here...

DH: Tech's triple option has found plenty of running room even in the games they have lost. What are the keys to slowing them down, and do you think there's a way to beat them even if they rack up 300+ yards on the ground?

CH: Yes, there's definitely a chance that Georgia Tech can be beaten even if it rushes for more than 300 yards. Take the Yellow Jackets' 28-7 loss against North Carolina, for example. In that game, Georgia Tech rushed for 326 yards, and sophomore B-back (running back) Jonathan Dwyer even had an 85-yard touchdown run. So even though the Yellow Jackets were able to break through for some big plays, they couldn't seem to translate them into points. Georgia Tech racked up more than 500 yards of total offense in that game, and for roughly three quarters, the defense held firm. So what happened?

One word: Turnovers. They've been the bane of Georgia Tech's existence this season, and (for the Yellow Jackets) a nasty by-product of the triple option offense new Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson has brought to The Flats. Now, they'll correct the turnover problem one day, but this year it's been a problem, and the North Carolina game was no different. On four occasions in that contest, the Yellow Jackets fumbled the ball, losing possession twice on two clutch moments late in the game. Had they held on to the football better, the Yellow Jackets may have been able to translate that loss into a win.

Keeping with the North Carolina theme, Georgia's defenders should probably watch tape of the game Tar Heels linebacker Mark Paschal had in that game. Flying all over the field, Paschal ended up with 10 total tackles, and had eight in the first half alone. At middle linebacker, Paschal was one of the players the Yellow Jackets struggled to get around. If the Bulldogs are to be successful against the run, Georgia's linebackers should hope to play as well as Paschal did.

DH: It seems like the Tech offense gets all the headlines, but the defense -- particularly the front four -- look really good. Are people focusing on the wrong thing heading into this game?

CH: No, I think there's a definite concern about the offense and the challenges it poses to Georgia's fast defense. Against an equally speedy Miami defense last Thursday, we saw just how poor a team can look when they over-pursue players, overrun routes, and fail to get in the proper lanes. So there definitely is valid emphasis being placed on Georgia Tech's triple option offense. But in that same vein, the Bulldogs have to be just as worried about the Yellow Jackets' front line than anything else.

Georgia Tech's defensive line is arguably one of the best in the country with All-ACC tackle Vance Walker and end Michael Johnson leading the load. Both are likely to be top-round draft picks next April, with some placing Johnson as high as No. 3 on the draft projection board. Senior defensive tackle Darryl Richard is another formidable player on the defensive line who is getting some considerable looks from NFL scouts, as well. Then there's the often forgotten member of the line, the young Derrick Morgan. Just a sophomore, Morgan has been dubbed by head coach Paul Johnson at times this season as "possibly the best player on the defensive line." And that's not a joke. At times this season, Morgan has been among the country's leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. He's even gotten his hand on a field goal attempt, blocking a long try to win Georgia Tech's game against Gardner-Webb.

While each member of the defensive unit is hungry for a win Saturday, there may be very few Yellow Jackets who want one more than the members of the defensive line. As seniors, Johnson, Walker and Richard have never beaten the Bulldogs and are sure to be playing even faster and even stronger than they have all season. Georgia fans, definitely keep an eye out for how well Tech's defensive line matches up with the Bulldogs.

DH: On paper, this is a big rivalry game, but Georgia has won every meeting since Mark Richt got to Athens. What's the attitude in the Tech locker room toward this week's game? Has Paul Johnson made it a focal point of the season?

CH: In all honesty, David and the rest of the BulldogBlog Nation, for Georgia Tech, priority No.1 this season is to "Beat Georgia." Of all the goals the Yellow Jackets have plastered on the walls of their locker room (and they've seen a large share of those goals already come true), the biggest one is for them to beat their rivals in Athens.

Coming into the season, very few pundits, bloggers and beat writers (me included) gave Georgia Tech a chance this season. Some figured the Yellow Jackets would win just three, four, five, maybe even six games. (On the extreme end, I personally thought they'd be lucky to win seven) The reason was simple: No one believed that in the first year of a drastic transition to a rare offense, that the Yellow Jackets could have any bit of success. So expectations were low for the Yellow Jackets coming into the season. They hoped for an ACC title berth, but it wasn't the top priority. They felt, if they could just get out of the season and upset the preseason No. 1 Bulldogs, regardless how many wins they had, that one victory would give the season great value. So to answer your question, yes this is the focus for the Yellow Jackets. To describe the mood in the locker room, though, I'd call it calm. Surprisingly, there's a lot of smiling and laughter among the players, but even in their cheer, there's a serious vibe around this week's preparations. Amidst their calm, there's a businesslike focus; a confidence, if you will. It's as if each player believes that this will be the year that they can finally beat Georgia.

DH: A lot of people seem to think this could be Tech's year to pull the upset, but the ACC hasn't been particularly strong and Tech hasn't looked great on the road. In your opinion, how good is this Tech team overall?

CH: Darryl Richard said it best after the Miami game (I'm paraphrasing so forgive me): €Ε“The conference is so up-and-down this season it's like everybody's playing hot-potato with the trophy. Hopefully they'll keep playing, and let it fall as we sit back and watch. €

There is no surprise that the ACC has seen great parity this season, and has increasingly drawn the moniker of a conference that is no longer one of the nation's best. Sure, that's no secret. But the real secret is that fact that there are teams in this conference that have the potential to be really good. Of all the college football I've watched this year, I'd argue that Georgia Tech is really good overall. I'm not sure if the Yellow Jackets are truly worthy of a top 10 consideration right now, but top 20? Yes. Top 15? Maybe.

The offense is good, it's tricky, but Jonathan Dwyer is arguably (overall) the best running back I've seen this season. And I'm saying this after having watched Knowshon in person three times. Yes, Knowshon is athletic, and has some excellent field vision, but for Dwyer to move the way he does with his size, and after having to learn a brand new offensive scheme, I'm convinced that there are some intangibles that he has that Knowshon doesn't. That's why, of all the position battles Saturday, I'll be most intrigued to see how the running backs perform.

In addition to sound offense, the Yellow Jackets have an excellent defense, with a strong defensive line and a young, pass-happy secondary.

In terms of the road record, most of Georgia Tech's stronger opponents this season were games scheduled away from Bobby Dodd Stadium; Virginia Tech, Boston College, Clemson, North Carolina. In those games they were 2-2, winning and losing in some hostile environments. In fact, of the crowds they faced this season, their win over Clemson was probably the wildest, as a loud, exciting fan base roared on the Tigers in the first week under interim head coach Dabo Swinney. Of course, in Athens, the crowd is sure to be even more intimidating, but I'm thinking they'll be prepared for it. For one, it's not far from home, and for two, a large smattering of the capacity Sanford Stadium crowd is sure to be wearing White and Gold, as well. As road games go, this will be the most neutral feel the Yellow Jackets have likely had all season. All of this is to say, don't be surprised if Athens turns into Upset City come late Saturday afternoon.

DH: What do you think are the two or three keys to a Tech victory and what's your prediction for a final score?

CH: Keys:

1) Cause Georgia to Make Mistakes:

As the Yellow Jackets have struggled with turnovers, we've seen the Bulldogs struggle with penalties this season. There have been cases like during the Vanderbilt game when Georgia could not seem to spot committing pass interference violations. There have been other cases when Bulldogs have committed unnecessary personal fouls. Georgia ranks 118th out of 119 FBS teams with 98 penalties this season. And whether you love him or hate him, Georgia fans, Paul Johnson is a very savvy head coach, and he is sure to find a way to exploit that statistic. If he can find a way to frustrate the Bulldogs into committing senseless penalties, he may also find a way to frustrate them into missing assignments and blowing coverages. This could all lead to a big day on the ground for Jonathan Dwyer, quarterback Josh Nesbitt and Paul Johnson's offense.

2) Enter Georgia's Backfield Frequently:

For a victory Saturday, the Yellow Jackets have to completely disrupt Georgia's passing and rushing games by getting into the Bulldogs' backfield frequently. Georgia Tech is 14th in the country in sacks, coming away with 2.73 per game. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Yellow Jackets' veteran front put tons of pressure on Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford early. And if they're able to do that, there's also a good chance that the defensive linemen and linebackers will be able to get to Knowshon Moreno before he escapes the backfield.

3) Enjoy the Moment:

Georgia Tech wasn't supposed to be in this position. It wasn't supposed to be No. 18 entering this weekend's contest, and it wasn't supposed to be in a spot where it could potentially upset the Bulldogs. So with nothing really to lose, the Yellow Jackets should play just that way and just enjoy the big-game atmosphere the rivalry will bring. Winners of seven-straight games, the Bulldogs are feeling the pressure to win a little more, as they are expected to extend the streak, and prove their higher national ranking. With less on the line, don't be surprised to see the Yellow Jackets play as if there's no tomorrow.

Prediction: Georgia Tech wins 27-20.

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