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Friday, November 27, 2009

Behind Enemy Lines: Georgia Tech

Before we get started, some news on Georgia's substitute mascot this week, from a UGA release...

“Russ,” the five-year old half brother of Uga VII, will serve as the Georgia Bulldogs’ mascot for the game against Georgia Tech on Saturday in Atlanta.

Russ may also serve as the mascot in Georgia’s bowl game but will not be next in the line of permanent Uga mascots. Uga VIII will not be selected until sometime after the first of the year.

The most famous previous substitute for a game was “Otto” who in 1986 served four games for his younger brother, Uga IV. Uga IV had injured ligaments in his left hind knee prior to the 1986 game with Vanderbilt. Otto led the team to a 3-1 record and also served as co-mascot (along with Uga IV) in a victory over Georgia Tech.

So the good news is that, after an 0-1 record without a mascot, Georgia will at least have a Bulldog on the sideline this week. Now, if he could just make some tackles on the perimeter, they'd be set.

And speaking of what the Dawgs need to do to pull out a win, it's time to take our weekly look behind the scenes of Georgia's opponent. This week, we check in with Georgia Tech beat writer for the Macon Telegraph, Mr. Coley Harvey.

David Hale: OK, let's get this one out of the way right off the bat: Is there any chance that Georgia slows down the Tech running game this week? What is it that teams like Clemson, LSU and Miami did well to slow down the triple option that Georgia could imitate?

Coley Harvey: Of course, there's always a chance that anybody, any week could slow down Georgia Tech's option. But the thing is, the Yellow Jackets have added so many wrinkles to it and have gotten so proficient with the offense since last season, that it seems to be pretty tough to stop. They are averaging 314.1 yards rushing per game, ranking second nationally behind Nevada. So the option is definitely working.

What should worry Georgia Tech is that Georgia's defensive line in many ways is a lot like Clemson's given the talent, speed and size that comprises that line. Early on in this year's first Clemson game, the Tigers actually had a lot of trouble with Georgia Tech because the Yellow Jackets kept running pitches to the outside and occasional triple option plays that the defensive linemen couldn't catch up to on the edges. But as that game wore on, Georgia Tech abandoned that and began running reads and dives into that line, and it was like running into a brick wall. That's much the same thing that happened against LSU in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl, although I'd contend that lack of offensive production (they lost 38-3) was more a result of not getting into any kind of game rhythm and playcalling rhythm. (And of course, they were going up against another very talented defensive line).

The Miami game is a hard gauge mainly because the Jackets -- as head coach Paul Johnson said, and I actually agree -- looked like they were "running in quicksand." That was their third game in a two-week span that included that emotional 30-27 win over Clemson. They definitely looked beat up and worn down to me, and that only amplified the Hurricanes' ability to get to B-back Jonathan Dwyer (who was even knocked out of that game with a shoulder injury; he didn't even crack the 10-yard mark).

But needless to say, the key in stopping Georgia Tech's option could reside in Georgia's defensive line. It also depends on just what the Bulldogs can do about Dwyer. As we've seen in the past, the more Dwyer is neutralized, the tougher it can be for the Jackets to get going. But then again, this year, Tech has proven that there are still several other players who could easily pick up the slack at any given time (i.e. QB Josh Nesbitt, A-back Anthony Allen, A-back Roddy Jones, etc.)

DH: The last time we saw Josh Nesbitt, he was busy completing a whopping one pass on six attempts against the Dawgs. This year, he's still not throwing often, but he and Demaryius Thomas have hooked up 39 times for 950 yards -- including a ton of big plays. So how much more dangerous is the Tech passing attack this year, and how much of it are we likely to see Saturday?

CH: Georgia is very likely to see a more expanded passing game this year. The Jackets are averaging a whopping 10 passing attempts per game this season, four greater than the tally they had against the Bulldogs last year. Of course, this is a run-first offense and it will always be a run-first offense, but the key in making it go this year is indeed the threat of the pass.

As defenses start putting more and more players into the front box to load up and stop the run (Virginia Tech played a constant eight-man front against Georgia Tech in the Hokies' 28-23 loss this year, which also featured one completed Jackets pass), they will have to make sure their safeties and corners can still get back in the event of an unexpected pass. Because that's Tech's offense; it will lull you to sleep with run, run, run up the middle, and then when you least expect it, the Jackets will go long with a bomb to Thomas.

Of course Thomas, who they affectionately nickname "BeBe," has the exact same number of catches he finished last season with, and he has some 200 more receiving yards than what he had all last year. So there's proof that the passing game is working a lot better.

Also, in terms of the passing game, you won't see any short crossing routes from him or true freshman Stephen Hill (who chose Tech over Georgia at Signing Day), you won't see them run 10-yard curls or five-yard outs. Instead, you will see them go streaking down the field on every pass play almost as if Georgia Tech is running continual Hail Marys. The reason for that is because Paul Johnson wants passing efficiency. He wants to make sure that when the team throws it, that they mean it. He wants them to rack up yards and hopefully scores whenever the ball is in the air. In fact, Nesbitt currently has the second-highest passer's efficiency rating in school history for a season at 156.4 and set a school-record two weeks ago when he threw for 195 yards and two touchdowns -- including a 75-yarder -- on just six completions against Duke.

DH: Georgia fans won't soon forget the name Roddy Jones, but I wonder if Tech fans might have. The kid had 214 yards against the Dawgs last season, but has totaled just 241 all year this season. What's happened to him, and what are the odds he puts on a repeat performance against Georgia?

CH: Oh no, the Tech faithful very well remember Roddy Jones. In fact, in speaking with him recently, he said that the first thing most people mention when they meet him is last year's Georgia game. In particular, they mention his 54-yard touchdown run in which two Bulldogs couldn't corral him to set up what became Tech's final score for the win.

The thing about Roddy this season is that he's battled a wrist injury which has finally pretty much gotten 100 percent healed. He suffered it in an offseason workout accident. That's part of what's hindered his playmaking ability, but the primary reason has to do with the other guys around him.

For the first time, fellow A-back Anthony Allen is starting at Tech and is enjoying much the role that Roddy did last year as Tech's primary option behind Nesbitt and Dwyer. Two years ago, before transferring to Tech, Allen was the starting tailback for a Louisville team that played in the Orange Bowl and won. He had two touchdowns in that game. So as defenses likely have loaded up to neutralize Roddy (likely based mostly on his success against Georgia last year), they've kind of forgotten about Allen. In turn, Paul Johnson has worked in pitches and triple option plays to Allen's empty side that have translated into big games for Allen. Allen currently is the team leader in runs greater than 20 yards. So because of Allen's success, and because of the fact that even more A-backs are getting touches this year, Roddy has kind of been left out of the loop.

It's just kind of happened that his production has been down, but again, that doesn't mean that he is having a down year. Just based on what Tech sees from opposing defenses dictates how often he and others get the ball. So if matchups favor Roddy this week, he could enjoy another big game against Georgia once again. If not, it could easily be someone else.

DH: The Bulldogs' O line hasn't been great this season, but they've done a decent job of protecting Joe Cox. That job gets tougher this week, however, against Derrick Morgan. How much is Tech's defensive scheme going to be founded on pressuring Cox into making some mistakes?

CH: Every week that is the objective: to fluster quarterbacks, especially inexperienced ones who are prone to make mistakes. The Jackets are quite familiar with Cox's struggles and will probably be in his face early and often. But whether they get the sack or not, the key will be to force that pressure.

Now, I'm not going to act like that's going to happen often, because it may not. Excluding Morgan, there have been very few other Jackets who have pressured quarterbacks at all this season, and the linebacker corps has really struggled trying to get past the line on blitzes, too. There is of course a chance that the Bulldogs' line holds just long enough for Cox to get time to slice up Tech's secondary (which other quarterbacks have done with relative ease at times this season). But yes, watch for Morgan -- a junior who is potentially the best defensive end prospect for next year's draft class -- and watch for Ben Anderson on the interior of the defensive line. Anderson had a pair of sacks on another prolific passer two weeks ago, Duke's Thaddeus Lewis.

DH: Without A.J. Green, is Tech's secondary taking a big sigh of relief or are they getting concerned about the success Georgia had a week ago using tight end Orson Charles?

CH: Tech is concerned about anyone Georgia trots out at receiver or tight end. The secondary has had plenty of problems corralling pass catchers all season, and its interception numbers aren't quite where most expected them to be.

Now, in terms of speed, I believe the Jackets have the speed to stay with Georgia's receivers and make plays on the ball depending on where and how it is thrown. But when it comes to receivers getting in space and going uncovered in zone packages, it seems the Jackets have trouble minding their assignments and that's where they get lit up.

Of course, a tight end like Orson Charles will make for an interesting matchup for Tech's constantly changing linebacker corps. There are linebackers (like senior Sedric Griffin) who can stay with a receiver or running back on a pass play, and then there are others who struggle. And then there are others like Macon's own Julian Burnett who are on the shorter side of the measuring chart and could have problems going up high with such a tall pass catcher like Charles. But of course, without having to play a talent like Green, you've got to breathe somewhat easy.

DH: A year ago, this was the game Paul Johnson circled on the schedule to put Georgia Tech back on the map. He succeeded with a big win in Athens. So, has the win in Year 1 of Johnson's regime reduced the emphasis, or is Tech as up for this matchup as they were a year ago?

CH: It's kind of a half-and-half thing. In one way, the team has reduced the emphasis you could say. Last year, it was on their team goal board to "Beat Georgia," and this year, there is no mention of beating the Bulldogs anywhere. The only real mention on the board is to "Go undefeated at home." The reason for all of that is because Johnson has gotten his players to understand that while important, this game is more of an exhibition every year in the sense that it will do nothing to help their BCS bowl hopes this year. A win over Georgia as Tech is ranked No. 7 won't vault the Jackets into the national title game. They realize that. But what they really realize is that a win next week in the ACC championship, and they will go on to that BCS bowl and likely exorcise some demons in Miami.

But then there is that other half of thought. And that is that the emphasis that this game is still chock full of meaning. Yeah, in some sense it impacts in-state recruiting. But most importantly, it is a rivalry, and you don't want to lose. Paul Johnson has done a great job of having his players keyed into each and every game they've played this year. They have honed in each week on whatever opponent they are set to play and do not seem to be looking too far forward. So I don't think that because of their success the Jackets are ready to get to Tampa. They know what a win in this series means to their fans, and they want to get to about 11:30 p.m. Saturday night before their minds shift back to the ACC. So in a nutshell, it's kind of a two-pronged thing. This game isn't the important one on dictating the full measure of success Tech has this season, but it does hold importance. As Roddy Jones and Dwyer both said earlier this week, it still feels like the vast majority of the state is against Tech in this rivalry. They are still out to change that.

DH: Lightning round: What's your prediction for the game?

CH: Paul Johnson's second-half tactics will be too much for the Bulldogs (sorry, Red-and-Black Nation). Georgia Tech 45-28.

Big thanks to Coley for some detailed answers. You can read his Tech coverage HERE and follow him on Twitter HERE.

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