FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In one two-week blur, three separate running backs sprinted through and around Georgia Tech’s injury-depleted secondary for several major gains.
The runs were so big that their combined 58 carries amassed a mind-numbing 582 yards; an average of 10.0 yards per rush.
For the Yellow Jackets defenders who witnessed first-hand the damage of those ballcarriers, a realization had to be made. A change of focus had to be implemented.
Come Tuesday when No. 9 Georgia Tech takes on No. 10 Iowa in the Orange Bowl in Miami, expect added emphasis to be placed on an area that has caused the Yellow Jackets much recent consternation.
“I feel that Iowa has been watching the last two games, and they see that we’ve been pretty suspect on the run, so I’m pretty sure they’re going to try to run the ball down our throats,” Georgia Tech linebacker Sedric Griffin said Saturday. “So we’re going to try to take away the run and let (Ricky) Stanzi beat us.”
By trying first to shut down the Hawkeyes’ balanced rushing offense led by true freshmen Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher, the Yellow Jackets will be placing their fates in the hands of one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks in Stanzi.
“With him, they won the first (nine) games — went undefeated — and were incredible with him,” Griffin said. “If we take away the run, we see they still have confidence that he can beat us also, but we’ve given up what, 600 yards in the last two games?
“I feel they’re going to try to come in and run the ball on us.”
In a losing effort to rival Georgia during Thanksgiving weekend and then in a winning performance the following week against Clemson in the ACC championship, the Yellow Jackets could only watch as Bulldogs running backs Caleb King and Washaun Ealey and Tigers tailback C.J. Spiller blew through them for major gains.
“In the back of our heads, in the past games, we couldn’t really stop the run and it’s a big challenge for us to try to prove folks wrong,” Georgia Tech linebacker Brad Jefferson said. “They talk about our defense and what we can’t do — we can’t do that, can’t do this — so it’s a big challenge for us.”
But beyond the collective chip-on-the-shoulder mentality the defense hopes to bring into this game, Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson stresses the importance of limiting any team’s rushing offense, regardless how good its quarterback is.
“If we can limit their running the ball and make them one-dimensional, maybe we’ll have a chance to slow them up some,” Johnson said. “Both teams can hit plays in the passing game and do those kinds of things, but generally, if you can’t run the ball, it’s going to be hard to win.”
Hearing all this news about the Yellow Jackets’ potential defensive plans made Iowa’s second-leading receiver, Marvin McNutt, smile.
“I love when people just say ‘The key is stopping the run,’” he said. “Obviously, we have a lot of threats, and hopefully we can adjust our precision with everything that we’re doing.”
Hauling in 30 catches for 653 yards, McNutt led the team in receiving average (21.8) and touchdowns (seven) during the regular season. Lining up on the side opposite him was All-Big Ten wide out Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who led the team in receptions with 41 and receiving yards with 687.
Although Georgia Tech’s designs of incorporating a run-first mentality will be the product of its previous two games, it still has McNutt relishing a potential under-the-radar showing.
“It’s fun when people don’t really look to you,” McNutt said. “You can surprise them and look back and give them a little grin or smirk (and say), ‘You should have worked harder on the pass.’
“But we’re just going to go out there and do everything the right way, the way we know how to do it.”