Stan Awtrey is one of the true pros among sportswriters in the state of Georgia, and The Telegraph is lucky to have him covering Georgia Tech these days. And therefore we here are lucky to have him help us preview Saturday's game.
Thanks to Stan for some very in-depth answers, and I know you'll all find them informative:
1. Georgia Tech's offense is averaging more than 40 points over the past three games, including the ridiculous 68-50 win at North Carolina. What best explains that?
SA: Part of it is the opposition. Neither Maryland, North Carolina nor Duke will remind anyone of the ‘86 Bears when it comes to defense. But Tech’s offensive surge seems to be connected to the improved performance of its offensive line. Those guys have pretty good size, they work well together and over the last few games the effort has intensified. If they’re knocking defenders aside or getting them out of the way, Tech has the backs to make big plays.
The other factor is the newfound competition at quarterback between Tevin Washington and redshirt freshman Vad Lee. Two weeks ago Washington gave way to Lee after the second series and never had a chance to get back in the game. Last week the two split time in the first half, but Washington kept the job for the second half because he was moving the team so effectively. Whoever is in the game knows that he must produce or risk spending extended time holding their helmet.
2. This is the second straight week that Georgia has faced the triple-option: Georgia Southern was last week, coached by Jeff Monken, who has the connection to Paul Johnson. Other than the difference in personnel, are there any major differences in how Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern run their systems?
SA: The offenses are quite similar, which you you expect from Monken, who learned it from Johnson. The difference comes with size and ability. The Tech offensive linemen are bigger, faster and stronger. And the skill position players are all capable of breaking a long one, something Georgia Southern isn’t likely to have.
3. Time of possession, wearing down a defense, all those things that a triple-option is supposed to help do ... But if Georgia is able to take an early lead, as it did last year, does that take the Yellow Jackets out of their system, or have the Jackets' gotten their passing game to the point where it's not an issue?
SA: Georgia Tech cannot afford to play from behind. Tech’s option offense doesn’t lend itself to come-from-behind efforts. (Of course, Tech was two scores behind Georgia at halftime the last time it beat the Bulldogs.) You can’t really take Tech out of its system, because that’s all it knows. The Tech passing game is improved, but the Jackets still haven’t established a go-to guy who can catch the ball downfield -- even if it is delivered properly. Most of their passing yardage has gone to runners circling out of the backfield.
Tech’s best strategy is to keep the ball as long as it can. Tevin Washington took the Jackets on four touchdown drives of 10 plays or longer. One went 18 plays. Tech has to have a few of those to be competitive.
4. Has there been a noticeable change on defense since Al Groh was fired, and how so?
SA: The main technical change is dumping the two-gap system taught by Groh. Johnson has taken more interest in the defensive gameplans; he was obviously motivated to get more involved. Johnson’s staff simplified the scheme in order to help them play faster. That’s worked; they’ve look quicker and more aggressive. The on-going problem is poor tackling; it’s gotten better, but it remains average at best.
The team has more than they expected from the absence of linebacker Julian Burnett, their motivational leader and guy who made most of the defensive calls. Burnett hurt his neck in the Sun Bowl and was ruled medically unable to play. Tech also was hampered by the poor start by outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, who can be a game-changer with his speed and long arms.
5. Georgia Tech is sixth in the ACC in sacks, with 24. Coincidentally, Georgia has given up the same number of sacks. What are the chances that the Yellow Jackets will be able to put pressure on Aaron Murray and take Georgia out of its passing game?
SA: Applying pressure hasn’t really been a strength for Tech. The front three has improved, but considered a little soft. OLB Attaochu has picked up the pressure; he had two sacks last week and now has seven. Tech isn’t by any means a sack machine. It should do enough to keep Murray honest, but he probably shouldn’t lose sleep over the prospect of spending a lot of time on his back.
6. Finally, what are the two or three keys for Georgia Tech if it's going to have a chance to pull the upset.
SA: One: No turnovers. Tech has been pretty good and holding on to the football and that trend must continue this week. Two: Decisively win the time-of-possession battle That probably means a handful of extended drives and few three-and-outs. Three: No mistakes in the kicking game. Tech can’t afford to miss any gimme field goals (or extra points), allow any lengthy kick returns or shank any punts. Georgia is too good to let any of those pass.