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Georgia Bulldogs' adjustments key to rally past rival Yellow Jackets

University of Georgia’s Kolton Houston, a Buford graduate, leaps into the crowd after the Bulldogs beat Georgia Tech on Friday night in Atlanta. (Staff Photo: Jason Braverman)

University of Georgia’s Kolton Houston, a Buford graduate, leaps into the crowd after the Bulldogs beat Georgia Tech on Friday night in Atlanta. (Staff Photo: Jason Braverman)

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University of Georgia’s Todd Gurley scores the game-winning touchdown during the overtime period past Georgia Tech’s D.J. White (28) and Chris Milton (6) on Saturday in Atlanta. (Staff Photo: Jason Braverman)

ATLANTA — With a nickname like “Clean Old Fashioned Hate,” it’s easy to view the Georgia-Georgia Tech football rivalry as two heavyweight fighters coming to the center of the ring and slugging it out.

But Saturday’s 108th renewal of the rivalry was as much as chess match as it was a slugfest.

Ultimately, it was Richt and Georgia getting the final checkmate with a 41-34 double overtime win before 54,914 fans at Bobby Dodd Stadium after rallying from as much as a 20-0 deficit late in the first half.

“One thing about this team. No matter who we’re playing, were going to keep fighting hard and never quit,” said Georgia cornerback Sheldon Dawson, who had four tackles, including a tackle for loss. “If you do that, you never know what can happen. It’s not about if you fail, because you’re going to fail in football. It’s about getting back up.”

Still, as much as big a part of the outcome as Georgia’s comeback was, it was also defined by Bulldogs (8-4) coach Mark Richt and his staff and Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson trading moves and countermoves throughout the afternoon.

It started with two initial moves by Tech (7-5), the first of which involved Johnson weighing his normally run-heavy offense more towards the air than most weeks, with quarterback Vad Lee completing 11 of 23 passes for a career-high 232 yards and two touchdowns.

While Georgia never did fully stop Tech’s uncharacteristic aerial assault, and the Jackets were able to complement it with a solid running game led by David Sims’ 100 yards on 21 carries, the Bulldogs were able to make enough adjustments to slow down the Tech offense to give their own offense a chance to get going.

“I don’t know. We really didn’t do much to slow it down in my opinion,” Richt said. “I think we just got a little more pressure. I don’t think we even got a sack in the game. We might have covered just a little bit tighter.”

The Jackets’ defense also made an early move by pressuring Georgia’s first-time starting quarterback Hutson Mason, sacking him twice in the first half and forcing him into poor throws several other times.

“It definitely was,” said Jackets defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, who had four sacks on the day to give him 31 for his career to tie Greg Gathers for Tech’s all-time career lead, when asked if extra pressure on Mason was part of the game plan. “We saw some things we could do early. Of course, they made some adjustments, but for the most part, we were able to get decent pressure.”

But that pressure steadily diminished beginning with Georgia’s last possession of the first half, during which Mason completed five straight passes, including a 9-yard TD to Todd Gurley with 34 seconds left in the half that sent the Bulldogs into intermission trailing just 20-7, and with much-needed momentum on their side.

It was momentum that would continue into the second half thanks to the aforementioned blocking adjustments made to Georgia’s offensive line, which saw made sure Mason saw much less of Attaochu and company and allowed him to throw for 185 of his 299 yards on the day in the second half.

“(Mason) wasn’t totally comfortable in the beginning,” Richt said. “Georgia Tech was running some twists (in its pass rushing scheme) and I think Hutson didn’t feel real comfortable in the pocket. Later on, we had to keep the middle of that pocket safe for him, (and) he made some great throws and we had some guys make some great catches.

“I saw a couple of times that they were running some twists. When you twist with the defensive line, usually there is one guy who penetrates and the other loops around. aryl on, the penetrators were pushing the pocket too much in (Mason’s) face, and I think that was causing him to flush. Later on, we stopped the penetrator pretty good and it made it tougher for them to get some pressure. I think once the center of that pocket got solidified, it helped him out a lot.”

But it was another Georgia adjustment late that helped the Bulldogs bounce back.

After being held to just 36 yards on 11 carries over the first three quarters, Gurley finally got in gear.

The 6-foot-1, 232-pound sophomore ran for 86 yards for the remainder of the game, including all 50 of Georgia’s yards and both its scores in the two overtime frames, against a worn-down Tech defense.

Still, Tech was in a position to send the game into a third overtime with the ball as deep as the Georgia 3-yard line, but two more adjustments helped the Bulldogs seal the deal.

First, they were able to cut off Tech’s toss sweep, which Robert Godhigh had used to run for the majority of his 71 yards on the day, for a 3-yard loss on third and 2.

Then, after Lee and the Jackets had burned Georgia several times on slant passes, Ramik Wilson got a hand on Lee’s attempt at the game-tying pass to Darren Waller in the end zone.

And unlike two weeks earlier, when a batted ball wound up as a miracle touchdown by Ricardo Louis in a heartbreaking loss at Auburn, the live ball fell harmlessly to the turf out of the reach of diving Tech receivers, allowing the Bulldogs to celebrate their fifth straight win, and 12th in the last 13 seasons, over their in-state rivals.

“It’s a little bit of redemption for the way the Auburn game ended to have this win,” said Georgia receiver Michael Bennett, who finished with five catches for 53 yards and a TD. “We’ve obviously got to start out better, but we were down 20 against Auburn and we were down 20 (Saturday) night, and we came back. To see our team come back the way it did was amazing. We knew we could do it.”

By contrast, the loss was another bitter pill to swallow for the Jackets in the series, particularly with the opportunity they let slip away.

“It was a tough game,” Johnson said. “I was proud of our guys’ effort. It’s a hard game to lose, a gut-wrenching game. It would’ve been for either side. There’s really not a whole lot (else) to say about it.”