5 things to know before Georgia Tech faces No. 1 Georgia

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins shake hands during an NCAA college football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, November 30, 2019. Georgia won 52-7 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins shake hands during an NCAA college football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, November 30, 2019. Georgia won 52-7 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A week after its 55-0 loss at Notre Dame, Georgia Tech faces a challenge even more formidable Saturday. The Yellow Jackets will close their season against No. 1 Georgia at Bobby Dodd Stadium, a renewal of the Clean Old-Fashioned Hate rivalry that has gone the Bulldogs’ way in each of the past three meetings, including a 52-7 win for UGA in 2019, the most-recent matchup.

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The Jackets (3-8) will try to slow a Georgia team (11-0) that is a 35-point favorite and has won its games by an average of 32.7 points.

1. Rivalry renewed

The one-year hiatus that was necessary in the rivalry means that not everyone on the Tech roster has experienced it firsthand. With graduation and transfers, there are 32 players who played in the 2019 game that remain on the roster. In an offensive meeting, line coach Brent Key and quality control specialist Will Glover, who each played for Tech when both the Jackets and Bulldogs were Top 25 teams, both spoke to the unit about its meaning.

The two “stood up said, ‘Listen, this is what this game is. And this is what this game needs to be, and needs to become again,’” offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said.

Tech coach Geoff Collins is the rare participant whose knowledge and experience with the rivalry goes back to his childhood. He loves pointing out the spot in the Bobby Dodd Stadium stands where his family watched the annual charity game between the Tech and UGA freshmen (later junior varsity) on Thanksgiving Day. The family then repaired to the Conyers home of Collins’ grandmother Evelyn Collins for dinner and football in the backyard. (She continues to live in the same home.)

“But this game, this rivalry has been a part of my life since I was a little kid,” he said.

2. Jackets try to budge immovable defense

The praise for Georgia’s defense, widely hailed as the best in the country, flowed easily from Tech corners this week.

Collins: “Just the first thing, they’ve got tremendous players and a really good scheme and then they play really hard. That’s a pretty good combination to play at a high level of defense.”

Patenaude, who called the Bulldogs “a historically good defense”: “So the big guys inside just try to get lined up and bench press you back and then two guys coming off the edge are very, very long and very, very athletic. So those guys can just rip and run and get up the field.”

Offensive tackle Devin Cochran: “One of the biggest things I’ve watched all week is you watch just how deep they dig their cleats into the ground every single play. They are coming. They’re trying to hit you. And you have to match it. It’s do or die.”

For Tech, the mission of moving the ball is complicated by the number of injuries the Jackets have taken on the offensive line. The matchup with the Bulldogs’ defensive front, namely nose guard Jordan Davis (a finalist for the Outland Trophy, given to the top interior offensive or defensive lineman in the country), will be a bear.

“Moving those guys out of the way is a little bit different,” Patenaude said. “So you have to attack some things different.”

3. Senior Day

Before the game, the team will honor 24 Jackets seniors. Of the 24, 13 are seniors by eligibility and 11 who are seniors academically and are scheduled to graduate but have eligibility remaining.

One in the latter group, defensive end Jordan Domineck, already announced his decision to return, a significant retention for the defense as he is tied for the team lead in sacks (three) and leads in quarterback hurries (four).

Another impending graduate with a season of eligibility remaining, running back Jordan Mason, said Wednesday that he had yet to decide.

One who has completed his eligibility is defensive tackle Djimon Brooks, who arrived at Tech as a walk-on and will leave as a two-year starter and undisputed team leader. Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker hailed Brooks for his consistently high effort and grading well.

“Right now, the feeling is excitement,” Brooks said. “I get one more opportunity out here on the Flats, in our backyard against the No. 1 team in the country.”

4. A test of mettle

The past two Saturdays, against Boston College and then against Notre Dame, Tech didn’t respond well when its opponents claimed the momentum. In the loss to the Eagles, the Jackets took a 21-7 lead, but then gave up three touchdowns in the second quarter to go into halftime down 28-21. On Saturday, Tech relented after the Fighting Irish returned quarterback Jordan Yates’ interception for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.

Thacker acknowledged that the response of his defense against the Irish was “not good enough.”

It seems almost inevitable that the Jackets will face a similar challenge Saturday against the powerful Bulldogs, whose capacity for big plays on offense and defense could test the Jackets’ mettle.

“If we’re put in that bad position right there, we’ve got to respond in those moments,” Thacker said.

5. Record chaser

Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs needs 78 all-purpose yards against the Bulldogs to break Eddie Lee Ivery’s school record for most all-purpose yards in a season. A Tech Hall of Famer, Ivery amassed 1,879 all-purpose yards in 1978 in 11 regular-season games. (That Jackets team went to the Peach Bowl, but statistics recorded in bowl games weren’t included in official statistics until the 2002 season.)

It won’t be easy. The Bulldogs have allowed 1.3 kickoff returns per game for 13.5 yards. Gibbs has gained almost a third of his 1,802 yards via kickoff return. While Gibbs has averaged 67.7 rushing yards per game, the opposing leading rusher in Georgia’s 11 games has been held under 50 yards nine times. The high is 69 yards, by Florida’s Dameon Pierce.

Gibbs also can keep his lead as the FBS leader in all-purpose yards per game at 163.8. There are two players within 3.2 yards per game of Gibbs going into this weekend’s games.

If Gibbs can hold onto the FBS all-purpose title, he would be Tech’s third individual statistical champion since 2000, following quarterback Justin Thomas (most yards per completion, 2015, 17.9) and punter Pressley Harvin (yards per punt, 2020, 48.0).

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