The offense we’ll see will be fairly similar to what Georgia Southern ran last week. But just as the experience against an option team helped the Georgia defense, the film also gives Paul Johnson a look at what did and didn’t work against the Georgia defense. There will be enough wrinkles and subtle changes from Tech that Georgia’s defense will have to approach the game as if they’re seeing the option for the first time.
One big difference from last week will be Tech’s ability to throw the ball. No, they’re not going to throw 40 times. Yes, they’re still bottom ten nationally in passing yardage (holy cow…look at who’s right above them!) But Tech has attempted more than twice as many passes as Georgia Southern on the year, and they’re far more competent at throwing the ball. Tech as a team is averaging over 10 yards per pass attempt and completes a fair 56% of its passes. (For comparison, Aaron Murray leads the nation among qualified passers with 9.9 yards per attempt.)
Paul Johnson continues to diversify his offense, and that has extended to the passing game. We’ve seen Tech pass out of their base flexbone sets as Georgia Southern did. Johnson has also added in plays out of the shotgun and pistol formations. Of course given the nature of the offense there are a healthy number of runs out of these formations, but Georgia will have to account for everything up to and including an up-tempo passing game.
Another difference with Tech this year is the lack of a standout receiver. There’s no one at the Thomas and Hill level. Tech’s leading receiver is the dangerous Orwin Smith out of the backfield. Their top true receiver is Jeff Greene. Greene had an 82-yard score against Presbyterian and a 58-yard catch against Miami, and he’s only posted 121 yards the rest of the year. Tech’s best option to score in the passing game has also come out of the backfield – Robert Godhigh, a short but not slight 5’7″ A-back. Godhigh has 4 of Tech’s 10 receiving touchdowns. The Jackets, in the absence of a go-to receiver, have been content to spread the ball around and pick their moments. Nine Tech players have a reception that went at least 39 yards.
Mark Richt has done his best this week to keep the team’s eyes on the task at hand and put off any postseason talk. In the right context, there’s nothing wrong with talking about the goals still possible for this team. They’re getting a constant message that those goals can’t happen without a win this week, and I don’t doubt that the team understands the need for a win. I don’t think that Richt is so much concerned with focus as he is handling the pressure of the moment. There’s no reason to take on the weight of the postseason and its possible opponents with such an important game still to play.
Add in the emotions of Senior Day for an important senior class and a crowd that could struggle to arrive at an early kickoff on time, and there’s no telling what the team’s state will be for the game. This isn’t Richt’s first team with a lot still to play for, and his SECCG-bound teams have handled Tech by an average 20.5-point margin. Even the 2007 team which got on a roll like the 2002 and 2011 teams was prepared and won by double-digits.
Georgia’s readiness will be important against an opponent who prefers extended drives and limited possessions. The Dawgs are fortunate to have only surrendered seven points on Georgia Southern’s four longer first half drives, and Georgia was nearly in a situation of going into halftime trailing and kicking off to a hopeful underdog. Georgia’s 28-12 halftime lead in 2008 reminds us that no lead is safe even against an option attack, but you’d rather be out in front against this offense than playing from behind. Though they came up with big scores right befor halftime, Georgia’s offense has started slowly in each of the last two home games. They’ll have to shake off the early start and the emotions of the day to get off to the kind of start we saw at Auburn that could put Tech in a deep hole.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that Tech will try to stuff the run as Georgia Southern and Kentucky did. With Murray emerging as one of the nation’s top passers in November, I’m not sure that’s the most sound strategy, but it does seem that Georgia can be made relatively one-dimensional – for what that’s worth. It’s more of a pick-your-poison for Tech: they’ve given up big running games (MTSU, Clemson), and they’ve also been burned through the air while doing a fair job against the run (Miami, UNC).
Tech held a depleted Georgia running game somewhat in check last year – 128 yards – but Murray was an efficient 19-of-29 through the air for 252 yards and 4 touchdowns. In fact, Murray is 34-48 (70.8%) in two meetings with the Jackets and has put up 523 yards, 7 TDs, and 1 INT. So if Georgia finds tough going in the running game, they have a quarterback more than used to carrying the load against Georgia’s rival.
Does it matter if Georgia runs the ball better than they did a week ago? Similar objectives can be accomplished with an efficient short passing game, but the running game will be important to sustain drives and give the defense some rest to deal with their tough challenge. If Murray can get off to a good start, lanes should open up for the tailbacks, and Georgia can aim to have the success BYU did with over 180 yards both on the ground and through the air against Tech. If Tech does decide to stubbornly attack the run, Murray should be prepared to open up the passing game as he’s done all month.