Georgia Tech defensive back A.J. Gray (15) holds a sign to celebrate their 28-27 win over Georgia at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, November 26, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com

3 keys for Georgia Tech vs. Georgia

Georgia is favored by 11 points over Georgia Tech and ESPN gives the Bulldogs a 78 percent chance of leaving Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday with a win over the Yellow Jackets. If Tech is to beat Georgia at home for the first time since 1999 and the second time since 1989, a number of things will have to happen in the Jackets’ favor. Here are three of the most important keys.

1. Gain an early lead

Given the methods of Georgia Tech’s three most recent wins against the Bulldogs, it might seem counterintuitive. The Bulldogs led 28-12 at halftime in 2008, 14-7 in the third quarter and 17-14 in the fourth in 2014 and 27-14 in the fourth quarter in 2016. Perhaps the Jackets would be wise to employ the “lull UGA into a false sense of security” tactic once again.

However, Georgia employs a style that the Jackets know well – controlling tempo and the clock and limiting possessions. The Bulldogs average 64.7 plays per game, among the lowest rates in the country, and is 14th in the country in time of possession 32:32. (Tech is sixth at 33:53.) The fewer the possessions, the later in the game, the bigger the lead – all those factors would (obviously) put Tech into a position where it has to scrap its run-heavy game plan, and that is a situation that the Jackets don’t want.

2. Get some turnover help

The numbers don’t suggest that Tech should expect a flurry of takeaways. Georgia has 13 giveaways this season in 11 games while the Jackets have 10 takeaways, tied for 119th in FBS. Tech has gone the past two games without forcing a turnover.

Regardless, getting an extra possession (or more than one) would be of great help. Changing momentum, gaining field-position help, denying a Georgia score – all things that would help Tech’s cause against the Bulldogs.

You may remember interceptions playing a significant role in the 2008, 2014 and 2016 upsets (Morgan Burnett returned an interception for a touchdown in 2008, D.J. White’s pick ended Georgia’s overtime possession in 2014 and Lance Austin’s interception set up the game-winning drive.) The Jackets have a mere six interceptions this season, tied for 98th nationally.

3. Cash in opportunities

Tech has done better recently in reaching the end zone after getting inside the opposition red zone. The Jackets have not had a field-goal from 25 yards or in since the Clemson game after settling for four up to that point. (Actually, Tech has not had a field goal of any distance since then, attempting just one – a miss from 43 yards – in the three games since.)

In fact, in seven red-zone possessions since the Clemson game (against Virginia, Virginia Tech and Duke), the Jackets have scored six touchdowns.

Regardless, the Jackets would do well to husband their scoring opportunities. Georgia gives up just 14.4 points per game and so chances to score may be few, both because of the strength of the Bulldogs’ defense as well as the likely fewer number of possessions.

Another reason is that special teams may not provide much help with field position. Georgia has allowed just two kickoff returns longer than 30 yards and none longer than 40 and just one punt return of 20 yards or more, a 26-yarder.

Meanwhile, Tech’s longest kickoff return (not counting Lamont Simmons’ 42-yard return for a touchdown of Miami’s flubbed onside kick try) is 35 yards and its longest punt return is 21 yards.

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