After losing to Georgia four consecutive times, Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson has heard it all heading into Saturday's game at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"I get a chuckle sometimes out of people who tell me to make sure that our guys take this game seriously," Johnson said at his news conference early this week. "As if we took the game more seriously, we would play better. We take this game seriously, I can assure you."
When Johnson took over the Yellow Jackets after successful stints at Georgia Southern and Navy, he inherited a program that had lost seven consecutive years to Georgia and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt. An eighth straight loss was a certainty in 2008, when the Bulldogs began that season ranked No. 1 nationally, but Tech's triple-option offense went to Athens that November and ravaged the Bulldogs for 409 rushing yards and 7.3 yards a carry in a 45-42 upset.
Georgia Tech was favored to make it two in a row in 2009, but Washaun Ealey and Caleb King combined for 349 rushing yards in Georgia's 30-24 surprise win in Atlanta. The Bulldogs have increased their margin of victory in the three years since, winning last year's matchup 42-10 in Athens.
Georgia's 11-1 record against the Yellow Jackets under Richt is the most successful run the Bulldogs have enjoyed in a series that covers 115 meetings and dates back to 1893.
"We've won most of the games, but I don't know if I would say that we've taken it over," Richt said. "There have been so many close games, and we've been able to win the close games - most of them. I think our guys understand how important this game is.
"I don't know if we've had a game where I would say that we came out flat. I think we're playing our best football when we play Georgia Tech."
The Bulldogs have indeed struck quickly in this rivalry, leading by a combined 52-9 lead after the first quarters in the past six meetings.
Richt was hired at Georgia in December 2000, less than a month after the Bulldogs suffered a third consecutive loss to George O'Leary's Yellow Jackets. His 11-1 mark in the rivalry tops his record against Kentucky (11-2), Vanderbilt (11-2) and every other annual foe.
"A lot has to do with wanting to honor our seniors with the way that we finish as a team," Richt said, "and I think a lot of it is that most of our guys grew up in Georgia and understand it."
So what can Johnson, whose first year at Navy in 2002 was the only losing regular season he has endured since becoming a head coach in 1997, do about it?
Johnson realizes his players understand the magnitude of the game, so he turns to a phrase the late Erk Russell often used. Russell was Georgia's longtime defensive coordinator under Vince Dooley who became Georgia Southern's head coach and led the Eagles to three national championships in the 1980s.
"One of the ones that stuck with me was 'playing with intelligent fanaticism,'" Johnson said. "That's what you have to do. You can't just go harakiri and play with such emotion and out of control. You have to be able to funnel that and control that emotion. You have to play with that type of emotion and that type of attitude every game, especially the rivalry game.
"The team that can control that is the team that has the best chance. Both sides want to win the game because it's a big game, and both sides take it seriously."
Tech's success with its triple-option again will go a long way in determining Saturday's outcome. Georgia survived 411 rushing yards to win the 2010 matchup 42-34 and held the Jackets to 243 rushing yards two years ago in a 31-17 win.
The Yellow Jackets had 306 rushing yards in last year's meeting but only 10 points to show for it.
"Last year I thought we played it pretty good, but it's a new year," Georgia fourth-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham told reporters this week. "You can't give up the explosive plays, and if they get the running game going, especially the fullback, it can be a long day."
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