Jon Cooper | The Good Word -
What’s that they say about rivalry games?
You can take the all the stats and history and throw them out the window.
Georgia Tech (5-5, 4-4 ACC) would take great pleasure in doing just that, starting with the game tape and pretty much everything about last Saturday's game at Duke.
There’s only one thing that matters now -- Saturday afternoon, Bobby Dodd Stadium, versus No. 7 Georgia (10-1, 7-1 in the SEC), in the 112th renewal of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.
“I told [the team] on Monday, this is a game that you’ll remember for a long time, especially if you win,” said head coach Paul Johnson, who has won two of the last three meetings with Georgia. “If somebody has to fire you up for this one, then you probably shouldn’t be playing.”
Johnson’s players certainly don’t need firing up.
“I always like the challenge -- a big game, ABC, Georgia, at home, last game in Atlanta,” said senior cornerback Lance Austin, who, along with twin brother, Lawrence will be among the 20 student-athletes recognized during Senior Day festivities prior to Saturday's showdown. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
“It’s going to be a hard, hard fight, a boxing match and the bell’s rung and the referee is pulling us off each other,” added senior right guard and Atlanta native Shamire Devine, who’ll make his first start in the rivalry. “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. That sums it up. It’s clean, we like to play each other clean. It’s old-fashioned, it goes way back. And then it’s still hate.”
A Georgia Tech win would be a nice twist to end what Johnson has described as “a screwy season.”
The Jackets have shown resilience, as they’ve hung tough against the four ranked teams they’ve played, have lost three of their five games by a total of six points and have held double-digit leads in four of their five defeats.
But “What if?” doesn’t play as a theme for the Jackets, except in the context of “What if we beat Georgia?”
“You win this one the other ones don’t matter that you lost,” said junior quarterback TaQuon Marshall. “That’s how it is. It means Georgia, you’re the state champ. Nobody else will really care about the other games you lost. That’s how I look at it.”
A victory over a prestigious team also might effect how others, say selection committees for various bowl games, look at the 6-5 Yellow Jackets.
“Besides it being a big rivalry game there’s a lot at stake here,” said junior outside linebacker Victor Alexander, Georgia Tech’s leading tackler, who sees a plethora of opportunities. “You’re getting the opportunity to knock them out of the [College Football Playoff], getting our bowl eligibility and just beating Georgia.”
“We’ve got a lot on the line, too. We’ve got a bowl game to go to,” agreed junior middle linebacker Brant Mitchell, who sealed last year’s win in Athens with a final-play interception of Jacob Eason’s desperation heave. “We’re not big fans of those guys over there at Georgia. We don’t like to hear it all year long and that’s what they’ve done this whole year. Both teams have a lot on the line and it’s going to be a heck of a competition.”
The Jackets’ defense, looking to regroup after last week’s loss in Durham, could play a key role on Saturday -- even if it’s just getting a late stop.
Even though eight of the last nine GT-UGA winners have scored at least 30 points, the last four meetings have been one-possession games and the largest spread in those four contests was just seven points in 2013, a game that was decided in overtime.
Stopping the run will be the biggest mission for Tech. They’ll have their work cut out trying to slow UGA's 1-2 tailback punch of seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
“We’ve got to focus on who we really are and come out and do what we do on Saturday,” said Mitchell. “Guys were just trying to do too much [against Duke], playing outside the framework of our defense. You kind of run into trouble when you do that. As a whole, we’ve got to get better and get ready to play our best game.
“It’s a linebackers’ game, that’s for sure," Mitchell said when asked about Georgia's power run game. "It’s your power against our power. They’re going to (try to) run downhill. We’ll see who wins.”
Johnson would like to see his team stop the run but has also focused on the guy who’ll hand Chubb and Michel the ball, freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. Fromm sports 17 touchdown passes against five interceptions, with a 60.9 completion percentage and a 160.5 pass efficiency.
“Everybody talks about ‘That guy’s the guy who struggles’ and ‘He’s the weak link,’ but when I watch the tape, I see anything but that,” Johnson said of Fromm. “The guy’s really accurate and I think he runs their system well. Now, he’s blessed that he’s surrounded by a bunch of really good players, but he carries his own weight. He performs at a really high level.”
The Jackets will counter with their own ACC-leading ground game (319.3 rushing yards per game, fourth in the nation), led by its pair of 1,000-yard rushers, in Marshall and sophomore B-back KirVonte Benson. Marshall, making his first start against UGA, comes in with 1,074 rushing yards, only 12 behind Justin Thomas for the most ever in a season by a Tech quarterback, while the sledge-hammering Benson has 1,009 yards on the ground. They’ll try to move the sticks against the nation’s fourth-ranked scoring defense (14.4 ppg) and sixth-ranked defense against the run (105.6 rypg).
“You know when you play a good team like this that the margin of error has to be very slim to none. If you make mistakes, you know they’re going to capitalize,” said Marshall. “So you have to really focus in and know what you’re doing when game time comes.”
“I don’t think we have to put our backs up against the wall because that will put a lot of pressure on us and you don’t play as relaxed,” he added. “I think everybody’s ready. Everybody knows what’s at stake.”
Saturday will come down to making plays. Junior A-Back Qua Searcy, who made the deciding play in last year’s game -- a six-yard run and dive into the end zone that gave the Yellow Jackets the winning points with 30 seconds to go in the contest -- doesn’t mind admitting that Tech has most of the pressure on it. He feels the Jackets are ready to deal with it.
“I feel like it’s pressure on us because we’re working to get that sixth win to get bowl eligible,” said Searcy. “We just have to go out there this week, prepare and execute.
“I feel like every year, it’s a battle,” he added. “No matter how we play other teams, this game pretty much always comes down to the wire. Georgia is going to come with their A-game and they’re going to get our best. It’s always a back-and-forth game.”
And it’s always the game.
“The first day you get on campus, you already know the slogan, ‘To Hell With Georgia.’ So this is a really big game,” said senior wide receiver Ricky Jeune.
Winning for the seniors and having them leave with a 3-1 mark against Georgia is extra motivation.
“It would mean a lot,” said defensive end KeShun Freeman. “The greatest part would be to win at home. I know Georgia Tech hasn’t won here the last eight times, so winning here, on Senior Day, would be an amazing feeling. To leave here knowing I’ve won three times [against Georgia] would be a really great feeling because I know not many people here at Georgia Tech have done that. It would mean a lot.”
“That would be good,” Jeune added. “Since I’ve been here, every game that we’ve played against them has been a tight, close game. That’s what rivalries are all about.”
Johnson is bracing for yet another nail-biter befitting Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.
“Other than the one year here that they were really good , the games have been pretty close. I think that’s indicative of a rivalry game,” said Johnson. “I couldn’t tell you why, other than it’s a rivalry game and both teams want to play and it’s a big deal. We put ourselves in a little bit of a hole. If we can find a way to win on Saturday and then go win a bowl game, you salvage a little bit of the season.”