ATHENS -- Mark Richt began shaking his head before the question was even finished: Does the fact that Georgia has -- at least statistically -- the nation’s second-best run defense mean a lot for stopping Georgia Tech?
“No,” Richt responded.
That may be a bit of coach-speak. But when teams go up against the triple-option, a lot of defensive principles take the week off. And so does, in the Bulldogs’ eyes, their lofty defensive ranking.
Georgia has had most of its success stopping the run up the middle. Big nose tackles John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers, along with defensive ends Abry Jones and DeAngelo Tyson, have stifled most of the attempts up the middle.
But the triple-option is predicated on outside runs, misdirection and cut-blocking. And Georgia hasn’t seen that this season.
So the question of which wins out -- Georgia’s No. 2 run defense, or Georgia Tech’s No. 2 run offense -- is an intriguing one.
“It’s gonna be the biggest challenge we have this year,” junior linebacker Christian Robinson said.
There are arguments to be made that both team’s high national rankings are misleading.
Georgia’s schedule has been relatively easy: Six of their opponents rank 63rd or lower nationally in rushing offense, and South Carolina (29th nationally) is the highest ranked.
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, rushes for so many yards per game because that’s about 90 percent of its offense. It’s no accident that the top four teams nationally (Army, Georgia Tech, Air Force and Navy) all run a form of the option.
“The types of running game that we’ve seen we’ve stopped extremely well,” Richt said. “But the type of running game we are about to see is not the same and the percentage of run-pass is very different.”
That’s not to say Georgia doesn’t have some advantages. Namely experience.
This will be the third or fourth year that many Georgia players will be facing the triple-option. Jenkins, a junior college transfer, is one of the few who hasn’t seen it before. So is outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, the team’s top defensive player, but the rest of the unit is dominated by juniors and seniors.
“Experience always helps,” said Abry Jones, a junior. “We have a real relentless type of defense, I think that’s gonna really help us off the ball. Last year when we played against them they made a lot of plays, making people miss and getting extra yards after that. So I think even if they do make the plays that they can make as long as we can crowd around the ball we can really limit them.”
It also helps that Georgia is in the second year of the 3-4 system. Georgia won last year’s matchup, but Georgia Tech managed more than 500 yards, 411 of them rushing.
Abry Jones, who had a career-high 16 tackles in that game, said one key is to keep up your stamina.
“For defensive linemen it’s very draining,” he said. “They might get you a couple times hitting the ground and getting back up. That takes a lot of energy out of you. It kind of slows you down a little bit, it kind of has you guessing, being a little cautious.”
Then there’s defending the cut-block, which is essentially when an offensive player blocks below the waist. Robinson recalled one play last year on which he was knocked down by a Georgia Tech blocking back, got up, only to have a lineman cut him back down.
“That’s what separates them from almost 99 percent of the teams that we play, is that you’re getting linemen every single play at your feet diving, taking you out,” said Robinson, adding that Georgia Tech blocks legally. “That’s something that you learn the second or third series in, that you’re gonna get cut, just get back up and run. Because if you have 11 guys that get back up and run, it’s hard for them to continue to be successful.”
Still, there’s only so much that can ultimately be done against the triple-option, and Georgia seems bound to see its rush-defense ranking slip a bit this week. The Bulldogs just hope it’s because of quantity of opposing runs, not amount of yards.
Junior safety Bacarri Rambo, who played option quarterback in high school, was asked if he looked forward to this week every year or dreaded it.
“I kind of dread it because we don’t see this too much,” Rambo said. “We don’t see this but one time a year and it’s kind of hard to scheme for it because there’s so much movement and once one person messes up it’s gonna allow them to make plays.”