Two big priorities for Georgia Tech vs. UGA

There are plenty of things that Georgia Tech will have to do right to have a chance against No. 5 Georgia on Saturday in Athens (Noon, SEC Network; News 95.5 and AM-750 WSB). Coach Paul Johnson acknowledged that the Yellow Jackets will have to be close to perfect to be in the game, a level of performance certainly higher than they reached in their 30-27 win over Virginia on Saturday.

But there’s two particular areas where the Jackets would do well to be at their best Saturday – the run game and third-down defense. Success with both would help enable the Jackets to play the kind of game they prefer – fewer possessions with the Jackets holding the ball for a majority of the game. Limiting the opportunities for the No. 15 scoring offense in the country (Georgia) would be advantageous, although the problem is that it will require the Jackets to be efficient against the nation’s No. 12 scoring defense.

The Jackets have won six of their past seven, not to mention their past two games in Athens. But winning again won’t be a simple task against a team that is 10-1 and has a shot at the College Football Playoff.

“They’ve got a ton of good players,” Johnson said. “They’re playing very well.”

A year ago, Georgia held the Jackets to 188 rushing yards in its 38-7 win at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Both the rushing total and the 4.1 yards-per-carry average were the lowest of the season. The Jackets hit a handful of plays – four runs went 10 yards or longer – but of their 46 rushing attempts, 21 gained two yards or fewer.

It was suggested to Johnson on Tuesday that perimeter blocking was a problem.

“We didn’t block it very well anywhere last year against Georgia; it wasn’t just the perimeter,” Johnson said. “If we can get the thing sealed, I’ll take my chances on the perimeter. That’s just one of the problems. It’s getting to the perimeter that’s a bigger problem.”

It may help that Tech has recently played two defenses that were effective against the Jackets, Miami and Virginia. Miami may have been the fastest team that Tech has played this season and Virginia the most hard-nosed. The Bulldogs may offer some of both.

“They have some big guys, they’ve got some guys that can run, long guys,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said. “I think that’s definitely helped us in the past couple weeks, just playing against those strong defenses, to go into this week.”

An effective ground game is vital for the Jackets, who have run the ball 87 percent of the time this season. In Johnson’s tenure, they’re 65-24 when they average 5.0 yards per carry and 18-34 when they don’t, according to sports-reference.com.

For the defense, getting the ball back for the offense has been a priority throughout the season. Defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s unit is tied for tied for second to last nationally in defensive third-down percentage at an even 50 percent. That the Jackets are at 7-4 with that rate is a testament to their ability to procure turnovers (24, tied for ninth nationally) and make timely stops, as well as the play of the offense and, increasingly, special teams. The other nine teams in the bottom 10 in defensive third-down conversion rate are under .500 and have a combined record of 22-77.

Tech had its season-best rate against an FBS opponent in the Virginia Tech game (2-for-8), but North Carolina, Miami and Virginia have all converted north of 50 percent.

Virginia was 5-for-9, but failed to pick up two critical third-down plays – a third-and-1 from the Tech 13 in the fourth quarter, which limited the Cavaliers to a field goal, and then a third-and-6 in overtime, which led to a missed field-goal attempt that secured the game for Tech.

“That’s been a problem for us the last two weeks – we can’t get off the field,” Johnson said. “That’s what we usually do to other people.”

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