Georgia Tech defense has work cut out for it against Ole Miss

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The Georgia Tech defense has its work cut out for it Saturday night in what certainly may be its most challenging test of the early season.

No. 17 Ole Miss (2-0) will line up against the Yellow Jackets looking to repeat its success from a year ago in a 42-0 rout in Atlanta. Tech, meanwhile, doesn’t want to relive, or even talk about, what transpired a year ago in Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“(That’s) in the past,” safety LaMiles Brooks said. “We’re a new team, have a new identity and want to go out there and execute that identity this year.”

The Rebels, now in their fourth season under coach Lane Kiffin, have scored at least 33 points per game since the veteran coach took over in 2020. This season they’ve already dropped a 73 spot on Mercer, and their offense put up 30 points in a win at Tulane.

It’s an attack that can sink opponents quickly thanks to its tempo and quickness. Granted, while most offenses in today’s college football prefer to go fast, Ole Miss often can do it cleaner and crisper than most.

In 2021 and 2022, Ole Miss ranked inside the top 35 in offensive points per drive. Juxtapose that with the seventh-worst time-of-possession average in college football in 2022 and that drives home the point of just how fast the Rebels can be.

“We know what to prepare for. We know they’re one of the fastest teams in the country,” Tech defensive lineman Kyle Kennard said. “But they’re probably even faster this year. It’s something else we got to get even more prepared for. We can’t just go in thinking, ‘Well, we know their tempo.’ We don’t. They’re snapping it faster than years previous.”

Generally, Kiffin’s offense is a run-heavy attack. Ole Miss ranked third nationally in rushing offense in 2022 (behind option teams Air Force and Army, respectively) and 11th the season before that. Running back Quinshon Judkins, who totaled 1,565 yards on the ground last season, and quarterback Jaxson Dart are the Rebels’ primary weapons in that regard.

But so far in 2023 the ground game has yet to find its footing. Instead, Dart has taken to the air to the tune of 35-for-50 passing for 601 yards and six touchdowns.

Ole Miss also has some scary playmakers on the perimeter in receivers Tre Harris (eight receptions for 188 yards and five touchdowns), Jordan Watkins (11 catches, 171 yards) and Dayton Wade (eight receptions, 129 yards). The Rebels rank fourth nationally in passing offense, fifth in passing yards per completion and eighth in passing efficiency after two games.

“They get the ball deep a bunch of different ways, whether it be the play-action game, the (run-pass option) game. They do a nice job in the play-action game complementing the RPO game. Then getting guys in space and missing tackles,” Tech coach Brent Key said Tuesday. “Really the three ways they create their explosives plays in the passing games.

“Everyone is aware of it. It’s the ability to go out there and play good, sound technique and communicate and be able to slow those guys down. You’re not going to stop every single one. That’s the goal, the goal is to go out there and stop every single play and be efficient on every single play defensively. Understand that’s not going to happen in college football. It’s not going to happen with these guys. They got a good offense.”

Tech gave up 42 points (21 in the third quarter), 316 rushing yards, 31 first downs and 6.8 yards per play in the 2021 defeat. It was the largest margin of victory for the Rebels against a major conference opponent since 2008 and the first shutout for the Ole Miss program in eight years.

It’s unlikely the Jackets will be shut out for a second consecutive season, given the early returns from Tech’s offense, but if the defense doesn’t stand up to the challenge, it will be a long night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

“You can’t just hone in on one person on their offense. They have multiple playmakers,” Key said. “We’ve got to have balance in what we do defensively, whether it be static, play pressure, mix things up, whether it be change the front, change covers, whatever it is. Mix those things up and keep them out of rhythm.

“We always want to be the hammer and not the nail, whether that be offense, defense or special teams.”