Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson has a unique understanding of what Georgia Southern will be feeling when it arrives at Bobby Dodd Stadium for Saturday’s game. That’s because Johnson was in the same boat just a few years ago.
Johnson was an assistant coach at Georgia Southern for two years and the head coach with the Eagles from 1997-2001. He knows what it’s like for the Little Brother program to get a chance to play the Big Brother on a large stage.
And because he knows, Johnson is warning his players that they better come prepared or risk leaving with their fourth straight loss.
Georgia Tech (3-3) hosts Georgia Southern (3-2) at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday in only the second meeting between the two programs.
“We won a lot of games. That’s all history now,” Johnson said. “But having been there, I’m trying to make sure our guys understand how excited they’re going to be to come in here and play. We’ve got to be able to match their intensity and be ready to play.”
Two years ago, the Yellow Jackets led 35-10 at halftime, only to allow Georgia Southern to score 28 straight points and take a 38-35 lead with 10:46 remaining. Georgia Tech didn’t win it until Justin Thomas, who was starting for only the third time, threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Deon Hill with 23 seconds remaining to give Georgia Tech a 42-38 win.
“The last time we (matched their intensity) to start with and then felt like it was over at halftime,” Johnson said. “To their credit, they came back with guns blazing. We’ve got to be ready to play one of our better games.”
Georgia Southern once again relies heavily on the run and averages 286.6 yards, which is sixth-best in the nation. The Eagles feature five runners with at least 200 yards rushing: Favian Upshaw (254), Kevin Ellison (252), Wesley Fields (279), Matt Breida (279) and L.A. Rambsy (208). Quarterbacks Upshaw and Ellison have thrown for 409 and 355 yards, respectively.
That leads to an average of 35.02 time of possession. But the Eagles have lost two straight games and are coming off a surprising 27-26 loss to Arkansas State, which was previously winless.
The Eagles are under the direction of first-year head coach Tyson Summers, who took over when Willie Fritz took the Tulane job. Summers was the defensive coordinator at Colorado State before taking the job. He was an assistant at Georgia Southern in 2006 and Georgia in 2005.
“A lot of us are looking forward to (the game in Atlanta),” said Georgia Southern defensive back Deondre Singleton, who played high school football at Archer in Gwinnett County. “I’ve always loved playing at Georgia Tech for some reason. A lot of my friends can make it to the game there. I just feel like I’m at home there.”
Georgia Tech needs to play with more consistency on offense and with more determination to create some three-and-out situations on defense.
“I know what we need to be successful,” Johnson said. “This week it’s run the ball and stop the run, win the turnover battle, which would be huge, and we need to hit a couple big plays in the passing game. If we do those things, we’ll have a really good chance to win.”
The game will also be Georgia Tech’s annual Hall of Fame Game and feature the newest inductees. This year’s class includes football legend Calvin Johnson, basketball star Jarrett Jack, former major league baseball player Eric Patterson and PGA Tour player Nicholas Thompson. All eight inductees will be honored at halftime.
But Saturday’s game will be more than a romp down memory lane for either side, particularly Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets cannot afford to lose the game and keep their bowl hopes alive.
“It’s important to them, and I’m sure they’re going to be excited to come in here and play, but once the game starts, it’ll be all Georgia Tech for me,” Johnson said.