Dec. 30, 2016
by Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Make no mistake, when Georgia Tech takes on Kentucky this Saturday the Yellow Jackets would love to beat the Wildcats for their third win over an SEC team this season, but the Jackets are more interested in the cake than the icing.
They want to win their ninth game in 2016, something the Jackets have done just six times in 25 seasons since they shared national titles with Colorado in 1990.
The fact that the Wildcats (7-5) play in the SEC may make for a nice asterisk after Tech (8-4) beat Vanderbilt and Georgia earlier this season.
But nine is the number on the Jackets’ minds.
They’ve had a nice time in Jacksonville, yet there’s work ahead.
“We’ve enjoyed the beach, and the pools and the tropical feel, but we know we’re here for a football game and we’ve got to get win number nine,” said sophomore wide receiver Brad Stewart, whose grandfather, Jim Sr., and uncle Jim Jr., were a combined 0-3 in the Gator Bowl [predecessor to the TaxSlayer Bowl] while playing for Auburn and South Carolina, respectively.
Nine wins look liked a longshot when the Jackets were 3-3 after a heartbreaking loss at Pitt.
They’ve won five of six since, however, and three straight since falling at North Carolina. After that one, a players’ only meeting propelled Tech to wins at No. 18 Virginia Tech, over Virginia, and then 28-27 at Georgia.
Senior punter Ryan Rodwell, who is from nearby Deland, Fla., said that seniors “Corey Griffin, Patrick Gamble, P.J. Davis, Harrison [Butker], all the guys who are natural leaders on our team,” took the yoke after the North Carolina contest.
“We kind of flushed that and moved on,” Rodwell said. “We got together and wanted to re-focus everyone . . . and believe in ourselves, let everyone know that we had each other’s back.”
“It always helps when you have some of the older guys step up and be leaders to show that they’re vulnerable but they have your back at the same time.”
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who played linebacker for Tech when the Jackets went 9-2-1 in 1985 with a win over Michigan State in the All-American Bowl, isn’t concerned about playing a third SEC team.
He’s worried about facing a Kentucky program that has come alive to win five of its past seven games, including a 41-38 victory at No. 11 Louisville last month.
“It’d be great [to beat another SEC squad], but for us it’s [about] win number nine,” he said. “Regardless of what conference we’re playing, or what team . . . it’s the end of this season and also the beginning of next season.
“It’s the last game for a lot of guys who have given a lot to this program, guys like Pat, [Roderick] Rook-[Chungong], P.J. Davis, Chase Alford and guys like that who we need to send out the right way.”
The Wildcats have become a handful offensively.
They racked up 581 yards against the Cardinals, who early in the season were frequently talked about as a potential playoff squad.
Junior quarterback Stephon Johnson took over when Drew Barker suffered a back injury in the third game of the season.
The Wildcats complement the dual-threat signal caller with a pair of 1,000-yard running backs in speedy junior Boom Williams (1,135 yards) and sturdy freshman Benny Snell (1,079), a slew of formations and pre-snap changes.
Somewhat like Tech, Kentucky uses a powerful running game to set up a potent downfield passing game. Johnson completed 16-of-27 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns against Louisville.
Johnson will be all over the place at times. He’s completed 54.5 percent of his passes for 1,862 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s also run for 278 yards and three scores.
Roof said Tech’s concerns will be, “The balance, and the big-play capability — they’re going to take several shots per game. The big plays in the running game that come from the wildcat and the traditional running game.
“We call it wildcat when somebody other than the quarterback is taking the snap. They do it where they motion the quarterback out to create wildcat, they motion the quarterback in to create more of a traditional offense. They do a lot of things.”
Williams averages 7.1 yards per carry and Snell 5.9, so Kentucky does most of its damage on the ground while averaging 241.3 yards per game to the Jackets’ 257.4. They’ve rushed for 29 touchdowns to Tech’s 32.
When the Wildcats throw, they often go deep.
Wide receiver Garrett Johnson (36 receptions for 568 yards) caught five passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns against the Cardinals. He’s smallish, but fast, and Jeff Badet is faster. His average of 22.8 yards per receptions ranks fourth nationally.
The Wildcats haven’t faced an offense like Georgia Tech’s, but they have some promising young defenders.
Sophomore linebacker Jordon Jones (No. 34) earned second-team All-SEC honors after leading Kentucky with 100 tackles. He added four sacks.
Sophomore safety Mike Edwards (No. 27) garnered second team All-SEC coaches from the Associated Press after he was second on the team with 93 tackles and tied senior defensive back Blake McClain (24) and sophomore cornerback Derrick Baity (29) with three interceptions each.
Sophomore linebacker Josh Allen (41) leads the Wildcats with seven sacks and four forced fumbles, while sophomore defensive end Denzil Ware has 5.5 sacks.
“They’re very mobile, very long,” said offensive line coach Mike Sewak. “Both nose guards are over 350 pounds, and their linebackers run very well . . . they remind you of Georgia and Vanderbilt, big and strong.”
The Jackets have been there and done that.
They get the chatter about the SEC, even though that conference collectively is having a down year beyond No. 1 Alabama.
Beating the Wildcats in the first meeting between the teams since Tech won 13-3 in 1960 would nonetheless be “just a huge accomplishment,” Rodwell said. “Everyone always looks at the SEC being such a powerhouse.”
That’d be icing.
Winning nine games, something that’s happened three times in head coach Paul Johnson’s first eight seasons on The Flats, would make the cake more satisfying.
“Really, I think our guys and our coaches are focused on getting that ninth win,” Sewak said. “That’s a nice number.”