Nov. 23, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
On Saturday at noon, the 111th renewal of Georgia Tech-Georgia (aka “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate”) kicks off at Sanford Stadium in Athens. It’s the annual battle for the Governor’s Cup, one of the few things that can make people actually look PAST Thanksgiving.
On Tuesday afternoon, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson was his usual measured self in anticipation of his ninth such match-up with Georgia, the fifth in Athens (he is 2-2 at Sanford Stadium). Perhaps it was that the contest was still more than 96 hours away that made Johnson so matter-of-fact about the this year’s game, in which both teams come in at 7-4 overall, 4-4 in conference and riding winning streaks (Tech’s at two games, Georgia’s at three).
“I think it’s a game between two state schools that has been a rivalry game for a while, that the alumni and fans want to win,” he said. “I think the players know each other because the majority of the players are from the state, they’ve played against each other in high school. So it’s like almost every place has when the two state schools or the two equivalents play each other. From North Carolina-North Carolina State, to Auburn-Alabama, to whoever you go to, it’s kind of when the two state schools get together, everybody wants to win.”
Johnson appeared as calm as if it was just another game, which is the same way he treated big games in his playing days.
“To be honest with you, everybody I played was a rivalry. I didn’t see any difference,” he said. “When I was playing that’s kind of the way I was. I didn’t like anybody I played.”
Not that Johnson doesn’t know big games or rivalries. Over 20 seasons as a head coach, he’s played for national championships and in BCS bowls and certainly knows rivalry games, as he came to Georgia Tech from Navy, where they have that little season-ender called “The Army-Navy Game.”
He has seen both sides of Georgia Tech-Georgia, experiencing total devastation following 2013’s overtime loss then complete exhileration in the following year’s thrilling OT win. In fact, a victory on Saturday also would be personally satisfying for Johnson, as he would become only the third coach in Georgia Tech history to record back-to-back wins at Sanford Stadium. He’d join Bobby Dodd, who won four-straight from 1950-56 (as part of Tech’s series-high eight-game winning streak from 1949-56) and George O’Leary, whose teams won in Athens in 1998 and 2000.
This senior class also has ridden the emotional roller coaster and while Johnson would like his players — Georgia’s also — to be a little more “been there, done that,” following wins, he understands the nature of postgame celebrations, like last year when Georgia players planted their flag in the middle of the GT logo at midfield.
“It doesn’t bother me any more than us tearing up their hedges when we win up there,” when asked about his feelings on the Bulldogs’ celebration at Bobby Dodd Stadium last season. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. The first time I went there in `08, I encouraged our guys not to take the hedges. Expect to win the next time you go. You don’t have to get them this time. But that’s kids. When they win here, they want to plant signs and flags and when we win [there], our guys go for the hedges.”
When the Jackets go for the hedges on Saturday, it will be the first time Johnson matches wits with first-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart. Johnson somewhat remembers Smart from his Georgia Southern days, when he either interviewed him or got a call from an eager young coach seeking employment. He also ran into him this year at the annual Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Challenge charity golf tournament.
“Nice guy,” Johnson said of Smart. “He’s no different than any other coach when you’re around him. You tend to get along,” he said. “I think we have an appreciation [for each other]. I certainly have an appreciation for what he goes through. I’m sure he’s starting to develop one for what other guys go through.”
Saturday concludes a regular season that has seen both Tech and UGA go through streaks. The Jackets won three-straight, then lost three-straight, and currently have won back-to-back games and four of their last five. Georgia also started three-straight wins, then lost four-of-five, and currently rides another three-game winning streak.
Georgia is only 3-2 in between the hedges, including an early-season escape against Nicholls State (26-24), and three- and one-point losses to then-No. 11 Tennessee and Vanderbilt. But Johnson expects to see a better team on Saturday.
“They roll about eight or nine defensive linemen, who were all four- and five-star guys. They’re good players,” he said. “Roquan Smith is playing well at linebacker. Then those kids in the secondary, Quincy Mauger and and Malkom Parrish, have been playing for two or three years. They’re much better than they were in the first part of the year, especially on defense.”
The offense has his attention as well.
“You’ve got to try to limit the run. I don’t know that you can stop those guys,” he said of tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the latter of which ran for 149 yards and 34-yard score on the game’s first series last year. “The guy who’s scary as the X-factor is Isaiah McKenzie. He’s been their big-play guy and when he gets the ball in his hands, he’s got the ability to take it the distance. They’ve got a lot of good players.”
Johnson doesn’t feel his team is going in with the cupboard bare, however.
“I think they’re going to be good players. I think they’re probably as athletic or more athletic than anybody we’ve had up there in a long time,” he said. “I think a lot of the freshmen are going to be good players. (B-back) Dedrick Mills is going to be pretty good. I think (WR) Jalen Camp is going to be good. That class is going to turn out to be a good class for Georgia Tech.”
Mills, the team’s leading rusher and second-leading scorer (578 yards, 11 TDs, 10 rushing) is back, which should boost the offense and give Tech a reliable 1-2 punch with sophomore B-back Marcus Marshall.
“It gives us some more depth,” Johnson said. “It’s good to have [Mills] back. It never hurts to have one of your better players back playing.”
Saturday is also the final regular-season game for Tech’s best offensive player, quarterback Justin Thomas. Johnson expects big things and a bounce-back game after last week’s performance versus Virginia.
“I just think we’re used to him playing better and he’s used to playing better,” Johnson said of his fifth-year senior signal-caller. “He got better as the game went on and he did enough to help us win the game. When you’ve played at his level, when he watched the tape he wasn’t happy with it either.”
It’s Thomas’ final visit to Athens. He, of course, was involved in a controversial play the last time there, as on the first drive of the second half, with the score 7-7, he was stripped of the ball at the Georgia goal line, long after Georgia Tech faithful felt his forward progress was stopped. Georgia corner Damian Swann pried the ball loose and took it 99 yards for a touchdown.
Johnson pointed to two keys to keep from a single play, controversial or otherwise, from potentially making the difference on Saturday.
“You need to be plus in the turnover margin and be really sound in the kicking game,” said Johnson. “If you can do those two things, it usually gives you a chance to be competitive and have a chance in the game.”
The Yellow Jackets have been doing both quite well. Over their last two games, they are plus-6 in turnover margin (7-to-1) and have scored 27 points off them. Brothers Lawrence and Lance Austin have been huge in the secondary. Lawrence had two interceptions and a forced fumble at Virginia Tech while Lance recovered Lawrence’s forced fumble against VT and sealed last week’s win over Virginia with a 24-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. For their efforts, they were both named ACC Defensive Back of the Week (Lawrence following the Virginia Tech game, Lance after UVA).
In the kicking game, Butker is well-known in Athens, after his career-high 53-yard field goal on the final play of regulation sent the ’14 GT-UGA game to overtime. He is 11-for-13 on field-goal attempts this season. Punter Ryan Rodwell is coming off a season-best day, averaging 52.2 yards per punt, booming a career-best three kicks longer than 50 yards (including a career-high 65-yarder) and downing two of his five punts inside the three yard line last Saturday against UVA.
A win on Saturday would not only improve Georgia Tech’s bowl position but also make a nice finish after coming up a little short in its ACC goals.
“You’re disappointed when you don’t win your division. If you go game-by-game, there are a couple you’d love to have back,” he said. “You look back on what could have been. Of course, you can go the other way. I’m sure the teams that played us can play the same game.
“You want to win every game,” he added. “Now, is that realistic? I don’t know. But that’s what you set out to do.”