ATLANTA — Paul Johnson was definitive during Tuesday’s news conference: Since he has been at Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets have treated their rivalry game against Georgia with the utmost importance.
But that isn’t what some of his more vocal critics have said during the past 12 months, as the head coach has been berated for having supposedly not taken his previous meeting with the Bulldogs as seriously as they believed he should.
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“That’s the biggest misnomer in the world; that we didn’t think the game was important,” Johnson said defiantly. “You’re going to try to win every game.
“Last year, we got beat; they beat us.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs rushed over the Yellow Jackets to the tune of 339 yards on the ground, propelling them toward a 30-24 win at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. Coming one week before his team’s appearance in the ACC championship, Johnson was chastised for apparently not treating the rivalry game with the urgency some in the fan base wanted to see. In their eyes, the Yellow Jackets were peaking past Georgia toward Clemson, and weren’t fully prepared to take on the Bulldogs.
Johnson contends that wasn’t the case.
Whether it was or wasn’t, it is clear that without conference title hopes on the line this season, he isn’t taking the Bulldogs lightly this week at all.
Georgia and Georgia Tech meet Saturday night in Athens for the 105th meeting between the in-state foes.
“In a game like that, I don’t think either team catches anybody sleepwalking and not thinking the game is important and not being ready to play,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that’s the case at all.”
While mostly measured with his words all week, Johnson seemed adamant Tuesday to make it known that nothing about his approach to Georgia has changed since his 2007 hiring one week after a Chan Gailey-led Yellow Jackets squad lost to the Bulldogs for a seventh straight time.
“It wasn’t like OK, now all of a sudden, wow, I’ve learned what this is about, we’re going to approach it differently,” he said of Georgia Tech’s loss last season. “Trust me, we tried to win last year. Give them credit, they won the game.”
The Yellow Jackets beat the Bulldogs in Athens in 2008.
Burnett continues feeling comfort
During the offseason, the Yellow Jackets changed defenses and changed defensive coordinators in hopes of shoring up an area that gave them problems near the end of last season.
Statistically, very little has changed or improved for the unit.
But one player, statistically speaking, has improved over the course of the season.
Macon native Julian Burnett, an inside linebacker who didn’t start the first five games, has come along during the season’s second half to be one of the Yellow Jackets’ most consistent defensive forces.
Trailing senior inside linebacker Brad Jefferson by four tackles, Burnett ranks second on the team with 71. In the time since Burnett’s opportunities have expanded, opposing offenses have had just one player rush for more than 100 yards in a game. Through four of the first five games, seeing 100-yard rushers was commonplace.
“I’m real comfortable as far as the scheme,” Burnett said of the 3-4 defense brought to the Flats this fall by defensive coordinator Al Groh. “But it’s more so being comfortable with the guys on the field. I know they’re going to be in the right place, and if I can just be in the right place it’ll just put me in position for me to make plays and for the most part, that’s what it’s been. I just give a lot of credit to everybody else on the field.”
From his first start — against Virginia six games ago — Burnett has watched his tackle totals go from five, to eight against Middle Tennessee State, to 10 against Clemson, to 13 against Virginia Tech, down to four against Miami and back to 11 against Duke last week.
Many of his tackles have been the result of cutback lanes being sealed better by he and other linebackers in recent weeks, he said.
“Most of the time, I’m on the backside of the play and when I do get the chance to make a tackle, it’s because those guys were in their positions and it came back to me,” Burnett said. “Any time we can make (running backs) redirect the play or change their minds about what gap they want to go in, that’s a good thing for us, and hopefully somebody is there to make the play.”
Keeping calm: QB edition
What is one of the hardest parts about playing a rivalry game?
That’s keeping emotions in check, particularly when playing on the road.
For backup-turned-starting quarterback Tevin Washington, that will be priority No. 1 at Georgia on Saturday.
Making just the third start of his young career, the sophomore will be replacing injured senior Joshua Nesbitt on one of the biggest stages he has ever encountered.
“I’ve just got to stay away from the newspaper and the Internet,” Washington said. “Just focus on football.”
Although Washington was thrown into the fire during his first outing this season against a 67,000-person mob at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium, the noise and nerves then likely will have nothing on the sights and sounds of 92,000 strong at Sanford Stadium.
Johnson recognizes that and wants Washington to maintain his usual, steady weekly approach.
“You’ve got to prepare all week to play and then put yourself in a zone to play,” Johnson said. “You can’t worry about who’s playing or the other team or how many people are there. You just block it out and concentrate on what you’ve got to concentrate on. Some guys are better than others, but that’s what you’ve got to do.”
“Athens is a tough place to play. I remember my first year there I got called everything but ‘Coach.’ So I’m sure it’ll be a tough environment. That’s what happens when you go on the road.” –Johnson, on difficulty of playing at Sanford Stadium.
“If there is one thing that I look back on, probably the most frustrating thing as a coach has been not being able to find the ‘hot’ button for our team. That is frustrating to me because ultimately I am the one responsible for trying to find it and I have not been able to, consistently.” –Johnson, on his frustrations of this 6-5 season.