Georgia, Georgia Tech battling for pride
ATLANTA — One year ago this weekend, Caleb King and Washaun Ealey made a bold proclamation.
It was one they wanted their rivals to be reminded of each time they stepped foot on Bobby Dodd Stadium's Grant Field.
Scrawled in white upon two strips of eye-black — before eye-black messages were outlawed in college football this season — Ealey, Georgia's shifty tailback from Emmanuel County, had the words "I Run" and "This State."
On a night when the Bulldogs traveled to Atlanta to face rival Georgia Tech for the 104th time, King, Ealey's partner in Georgia' two-tailback backfield last season, had the same message written on his arm.
And the pair truly did run their home state, as they rushed for a combined 339 yards against the Yellow Jackets' defense.
Georgia Tech defenders remember the night well.
"This year's defense and last year's defense is totally different, but a lot of the guys who were on the field last year will be on the field this year," Yellow Jackets junior outside linebacker Steven Sylvester said. "So it's definitely in the back of our minds."
While Ealey and King have combined for a much tamer 2010 campaign than expected, the fact remains that the Bulldogs saw a plan that worked last November and they may be poised to go back to it.
This season, the pair is averaging just less than 60 yards per game.
Part of the reason Georgia decided last year to use the run-centric offense had to do with the fact that its best player, receiver A.J. Green, was forced to miss the contest with an injury.
Without him, the Bulldogs were content with pounding the ball into the Yellow Jackets' defensive line and running down the clock as much as possible. In a sense, they used Georgia Tech's run-focused offensive strategy against the Yellow Jackets.
But even with a fully healthy Green this fall, that tactic could return.
"When you have some of the receivers that we have and with the way (quarterback) Aaron (Murray) has played as a passer, you don't just want to forget about that part of your plan," Georgia coach Mark Richt said in his Tuesday news conference. "But running the ball will absolutely be a big part of what we are going to try to do."
It is the last part of that statement that has the Yellow Jackets on high alert.
"Georgia's a multi-dimensional offense," Sylvester said. "So we really have to be on top of our game this week."
For a team that allowed four players to rush for more than 100 yards in its first five games, the Yellow Jackets have grappled all season with finding ways to prevent running backs from torching them as the year has progressed.
"That's our challenge is to stop the run and make them punt this year," Johnson said.
The Bulldogs didn't have a single punt in last season's game.
"That'd be a good place to start," Johnson said.
Discounting Andre Ellington's 166-yard game for Clemson last month, the Yellow Jackets have been a little better the past six games at bottling ballcarriers up. No other running back in that stretch has passed 100 yards in a single game, and even the heralded three-headed beast of Ryan Williams, Darren Evans and David Wilson was held under 200 yards when the Yellow Jackets played Virginia Tech three games ago.
According to Sylvester, part of the reason the run defense has played marginally better in recent weeks is because the responsibilities of Georgia Tech's 3-4 defense have become easier to understand and have fully sunk in for he and his teammates.
"It's a lot of downhill," Sylvester said of the scheme. "Our goal is to build a wall and to see if they can run through that wall.
Last year, we had a couple of gaps and a lot of creases and they found those creases, obviously. If we can fill our gap responsibilities and play our responsibilities, I like our chances."
One of the specific areas that has been shored up, he said, has been the shutting of cut-back lanes. During last season's game, Ealey and King found all kinds of space cutting back on the Yellow Jackets' linebackers after holes opened past the defensive line.
"We definitely have to be disciplined on our cut-back responsibilities because Caleb King and Washuan Ealey are two great runners. Great balance, great vision, great quickness; all of that," Sylvester said.
Although the memories of King's and Ealey's exploits sit fresh with the Yellow Jackets, they still try not to think about too much.
"You kind of want to not dwell on the past, but at the same time, we really don't want that to happen again," Yellow Jackets sophomore linebacker Julian Burnett said. "We really take that personally. That's not the way we want to be remembered.
"If I have anything to do about it, I don't want my seniors on defense to be remembered as the team that Georgia's running backs ran all over. Even if it's not for me, I'm going to do it for them. We're going to try to make sure that doesn't happen again, and hopefully it won't."