- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- The last two Georgia-Georgia Tech games haven't been very competitive, with the Bulldogs winning 31-17 in 2011 and 42-10 last season. But with Georgia Tech (7-4) boasting a much-improved defense and Georgia (7-4) trotting out a first-time starting quarterback in Hutson Mason, today's meeting in Atlanta doesn't feel like a gimme for the Bulldogs.
Let's take a look at five key factors in today's game:
Defending Tech's option: The first objective for every team that faces Georgia Tech is to slow down the Yellow Jackets' vaunted option running game. The Yellow Jackets rank fifth nationally in rushing yards with 316.1 per game. Of those yards, ESPN Stats and Information reports that 200.1 come before contact with the first defender, which ranks second nationally behind Auburn's 209.5. Speaking of the Tigers, Georgia struggled against Auburn's rushing attack -- which is second nationally at 320.3 ypg -- two weeks ago, surrendering 323 yards on the ground. The Bulldogs need to do a much better job than that if they are to win today at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
How will Mason fare?: Mason played great in relief of the injured Aaron Murray last Saturday against Kentucky, but he's had a whole week to dwell on how he'll make his first career start against one of Georgia's biggest rivals. He seems to have the mentality to handle that pressure, but it would be understandable if he experiences some jitters. Nonetheless, Mason has performed extremely well in limited action this season. He led Georgia to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against Kentucky, finishing 13-for-19 for 189 yards and a touchdown and also rushing for a 1-yard score. He also played the fourth quarter against Appalachian State and went 11-for-16 for 160 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Georgia Tech's pass defense ranks 82nd nationally, allowing 238.5 yards per game, so Mason should have some chances for big plays. Now we'll see if he can take advantage.
Running against the Jackets: Georgia Tech has defended the run effectively, ranking 10th nationally with an average of 104.2 yards allowed per game. Of course it helps that the Yellow Jackets faced teams that ranked 90th (North Carolina, which rushed for 101 yards against Tech), 110th (Virginia Tech, 55 yards) and 112th (Pittsburgh, minus-5 yards) nationally while attempting to run the ball, and they also held FCS opponent Elon to 89 rushing yards in a season-opening blowout and FCS Alabama A&M to 47 yards last weekend. Tech has only faced one rushing offense that ranks in the national top 40, BYU, and the Cougars ran for a healthy 189 yards and three scores against the Yellow Jackets. Georgia ranks 56th nationally with an average of 179.5 rushing yards per game, although its running game has been more productive lately since All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley (781 yards, 6.3 yards per carry) returned from a three-game absence.
Blocking blunders: Considering the number of errors Georgia has committed in the kicking game this season, the Bulldogs' coaches are likely concerned about blocked punts today. Georgia Tech is tied for the national lead with three blocked punts -- all by sophomore defensive back Chris Milton. One of the other teams with three blocked punts, North Texas, blocked a Collin Barber punt for a touchdown when the Bulldogs hosted the Mean Green earlier this season. On the flip side, Georgia was credited with blocked kicks against both Appalachian State and Auburn and deflected a punt against Kentucky that rolled forward to the Wildcats' 39-yard line.
Applying pressure: Georgia Tech's offense is not built for comebacks, so building an early lead would be extremely beneficial for Georgia. The Yellow Jackets are a subpar passing team -- they rank 119th nationally with 119.6 ypg -- so making them do something they don't want to do, and are not very good at doing, is a recipe for success. That would allow Bulldogs pass rushers such as Leonard Floyd (tied for sixth in the SEC with 6.5 sacks and tied for third with 23 quarterback pressures), Ray Drew (six sacks) and Garrison Smith (six sacks) to make life difficult for Tech quarterback Vad Lee. Lee ranks 93rd nationally with a 47.7 opponent-adjusted Total QBR. A score of 50 is considered average on the zero-to-100 rating scale. In comparison, Murray's QBR this season is 85.5 (sixth nationally among qualified QBs) and Mason's is 92.4.