Georgia Tech offense faces fierce challenge, but so does defense

On Saturday in Athens, Georgia Tech will line up against its biggest challenge of the season, a Georgia defense that has yet to allow more than 22 points in a game and averages 11.1 points per game, fewest in FBS.

Down to its third- and fourth-string quarterbacks leading an offense that has cracked that 20-point barrier four times in 11 tries this season, Tech may find the Bulldogs will be difficult to dislodge.

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But let’s say coordinator Chip Long’s offense experiences irrational exuberance and perhaps special teams or the Tech defense chip in with a score and the Yellow Jackets explode for 17 points at Sanford Stadium, just shy of their season average (17.5 points per game, tied for 123rd in FBS before the weekend). It’s not impossible – four teams have scored more on the Bulldogs than that. But 17 points also is more than No. 9 Oregon and No. 10 Tennessee (ranked fourth and first in FBS in scoring offense, respectively) put up against the Bulldogs – combined.

That would be part of the formula for the Jackets to leave Athens with arguably the biggest upset in the history of the rivalry. Much of the rest of the burden would fall on defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker and his squad to do its part. The Jackets face almost as much of a challenge against UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett and the Bulldogs offense, which before the weekend ranked 11th in scoring (38.4 points per game) and seventh in total offense (496.3 yards per game).

Holding back UGA enough to produce a titanic upset would be a crowning achievement for Thacker, whose defense has made marked improvement this season in his fourth season and hit a peak with its performance in the Jackets’ upset of then-No. 13 North Carolina on Saturday.

“He’s done a good job of scheming things up, putting a good plan together, attacking the weaknesses in certain offenses, different parts of the offense, taking players out of the game,” interim coach Brent Key said. “Giving the plan throughout the week, I think that he does a really good job of that, of taking the message of the coaching staff and the message that I give them on Sundays and filtering that into the team.”

The Tar Heels took the field at Kenan Stadium on Saturday averaging 40.1 points per game and 505.5 yards per game. With a game plan that called for the defensive front to limit quarterback Drake Maye’s ability to scramble and for the secondary to take star receiver Josh Downs out of the game, the Jackets accomplished both in their stunning 21-17 upset. Maye, a Heisman Trophy candidate (at least to that point), was sacked six times and played his worst game of the season, completing 16 of 30 passes for 202 yards with no touchdowns and his first interception in five games.

Tech held North Carolina to season lows in points, yards and passing yards to pull off the upset. After scoring in 39 of 40 quarters before Saturday’s game, the Tar Heels were held scoreless in the second half.

After falling behind 17-0, “they made some changes, and credit to them for playing hard,” Maye said after the game. “I thought they had a good scheme for us.”

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Downs, who had entered the game averaging 9.2 catches (second in FBS) for 105.9 yards per game (sixth in FBS) and 11 touchdowns (tied for third in FBS), faced double teams and was held to three catches for 31 yards and no scores.

Said safety LaMiles Brooks, “Coach Thacker gave us an excellent game plan to shut him down by putting myself and K.J. Wallace on him. We were able to execute at the highest level.”

The Jackets have been handled in other games, most recently the 41-16 loss at No. 16 Florida State when the Jackets gave up 642 yards of offense. But Tech generally has proved effective at limiting big plays and standing strong in its opponent’s red zone, in no small part a result of being able to limit go-to players.

“The thing that I’ve seen up close and personal now for the last eight weeks – when you can take a certain player out of the game, like last week, but then you know when you do that, you’ve got somebody else that’s going to be one-on-one the whole game,” Key said.

That means devising a plan to limit exposure for those weak spots and also to help the players tasked with shutting down the main threat meet that moment.

“Being able to challenge those guys that have those responsibilities and coming up with a plan to help those guys as well and not put them in position to fail – he’s done a really good job of it,” Key said of Thacker.

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On Saturday, that player could be Georgia tight end Brock Bowers, who earned first-team All-American status last season as a freshman and whose incinerating 77-yard touchdown reception through the Jackets secondary in last year’s Tech-Georgia game might be that game’s most enduring memory. Bowers has 41 catches for 625 yards and four touchdown receptions.

Stopping the run will be the first priority.

“They have a very strong O-line; that’s how we see it from the defense,” defensive end Sylvain Yondjouen said. “Big dudes, so we’ve got to work on being strong up front, stop the run. That’s mainly what we’ve got to focus on. We’ve got to play like we did last week and see what’s going to come up.”

Not far behind that will be finding a way to limit Bowers.

“Their best player is No. 19, so he’s going to be a key for us as well,” linebacker Charlie Thomas said, referring to Bowers.

Tech’s chances lie heavily also in creating turnovers, one area where the Jackets have outperformed Georgia. Before the weekend’s games, Tech was tied for sixth in FBS in turnover margin at plus-11, including 23 takeaways. Georgia is tied for 89th at minus-3. In the Bulldogs’ closest call of the season, a 26-22 come-from-behind win at Missouri, Georgia lost the turnover margin 2-0.

The Jackets don’t have much of a shot. ESPN metrics give them a 1.3% chance of prevailing. They will probably need the Bulldogs’ help.

And they’ll certainly need Thacker and his defense.