It’s been a recurring theme this year for Georgia’s offense — when one big playmaker goes down, someone else fills the void.
But the player that went down last week, four-year starting quarterback Aaron Murray, is the biggest name yet.
“Everybody knows about Murray, but Hutson Mason has completed over 68 percent of his passes,” Nealy said this week. “At the end of the Kentucky game, he moved the ball well. We’re going to have to play him just as well as we play Murray.”
Mason, the former Lassiter High School star in his fourth year at Georgia, is making his first start because Murray underwent season-ending surgery earlier this week.
Even though the Bulldogs will arrive Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium with Murray, Malcom Mitchell, Keith Marshall and Justin Scott-Wesley unable to play, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson believes Georgia still has enough offensive weapons to cause problems.
Look no further than tailback Todd Gurley, whom Johnson compares to Bulldogs legend Herschel Walker.
Johnson says if Gurley “isn’t the best running back in the country, he is certainly part of a small line.”
It’s not hard to see why.
Despite missing three games with an ankle injury, Gurley returned to help Georgia beat Florida four weeks ago and has averaged 6.2 yards per carry and 12.7 yards per catch in 74 touches since. The sophomore also has scored six touchdowns.
Last year against Georgia Tech in Athens, Gurley ran for two early touchdowns and finished with 97 yards on 12 carries and two catches for 20 yards.
Gurley finished last season as Georgia’s first true freshman to rush for 1,000 yards since Walker in 1980.
“To get him to the ground, we’re going to need a lot of defenders around him to make tackles,” Nealy said. “It’s going to take just one guy to bring him down. It’s going to take the whole team. That’s we’re working in practice and that’s what we plan on doing in the game.”
The Jackets (7-4) have lost 10 the last 11 series matchups with Georgia (7-4).
Under new defensive coordinator Ted Roof, the Jackets’ run defense ranks 10th in the nation, but top opponents like Clemson and Miami have fared better than the lesser teams on Georgia Tech’s schedule.
Clemson racked up 556 yards of total offense, 173 on the ground, in the Jackets’ 55-31 loss two weeks ago.
At Miami on Oct. 5, Georgia Tech was beaten 45-30 as the Hurricanes piled up 551 total yards, 227 on the ground.
Johnson expects Gurley to get plenty of touches.
“They’re going to get him the ball because he’s a load to tackle,” Johnson said. “That will be a challenge.”
The Jackets’ pass defense, which ranks 82nd, has been prone to give up big plays.
At Clemson, Georgia Tech couldn’t cover the deep ball as Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd threw touchdown passes 41, 44 and 76 yards and moved the chains with completions covering 21, 33 and 47 yards.
Mason has plenty of capable targets in flankers Rantavious Wooten, Chris Conley and Reggie Davis and split ends Michael Bennett, Rhett McGowan and Jonathon Rumph.
And in 13 seasons under coach Mark Richt, Georgia uses the play-action as well as any team in the country.
“You can’t put so many guys in there (to stop Gurley) that you give away the passing game and put your (defensive backs) on an island,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of a mixed bag. You have to mix it up and hope that your front six can play the run.”
Georgia Tech defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, whom Richt described as one of nation’s the top pass rushers coming off the edge, will lead pressure from the line.
The Jackets hope that Mason won’t prove to be as mobile as Murray, who was renowned for making plays after getting flushed from the pocket.
“That’s a pretty good team,” Attaochu said. “Gurley is a playmaker, one of the best backs in the country. They’ve got a good offensive line and a quarterback who’s very capable.”