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Sunday May 29th, 2016 7:29AM

Dogs hope to keep dominance going against Jackets

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson this week pounced on a politely phrased suggestion that the state rivalry with Georgia has been a little lopsided in recent years.

"A little?" asked Johnson, drawing a laugh. "I think it's been a lot lopsided."

Georgia coach Mark Richt can preserve state bragging rights for the Bulldogs in Saturday's game. Georgia is 11-1 in the rivalry under Richt. Its only loss in that span came in 2008, Johnson's first season.

Johnson would earn high marks for his second win in six tries against the Bulldogs.

Georgia Tech and Georgia share identical 7-4 records, so the game will help define each team's season.

Hutson Mason will make his first start as Georgia's quarterback. Aaron Murray's record-breaking college career ended with a season-ending knee injury last week.

Mason, a fourth-year junior, was held out last season as a redshirt and has had only limited playing time behind Murray. He said he still worked as if he would start so he wouldn't be caught unprepared if his opportunity arrived.

"That's one thing I challenged myself to do, to always prepare because you never know when your opportunity is going to come," Mason said. "I wanted to make the most of it because I knew my opportunity was short, that window was short."

Georgia Tech is led by first-year starter Vad Lee, who has had more modest passing numbers than many expected. He has completed only 47.1 percent of his passes (66 of 140) for 1,182 yards with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Lee has helped keep a balanced running game productive in Johnson's spread-option offense.

Georgia beat the Yellow Jackets 42-10 last year in Athens, but Richt wouldn't say his Bulldogs have dominated the series.

"Well we've won most of the games, but I don't know if I'd 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'd say that we came out flat. I think we're playing our best football when we play Georgia Tech. A lot has to do with wanting to honor our seniors with the way that we finish as a team, and I think a lot of it is that most of our guys grew up in Georgia and understand it."

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Here are five keys to watch as Georgia Tech tries to end Georgia's streak of four straight wins in the series:

GRAB ONTO GURLEY: Georgia sophomore tailback Todd Gurley has 781 yards rushing with seven touchdowns despite missing three games with an ankle injury. Gurley had 77 yards on only 10 carries in last week's 59-17 win over Kentucky and will be a tough challenge for Georgia Tech's 10th-ranked rushing defense.

WHO HAS THE BALL LAST: Don't expect a low-scoring game. Georgia is averaging 37.9 points per game, just ahead of Georgia Tech's average of 36.8. The Bulldogs allow 29 points per game. The Yellow Jackets' defense improved under first-year coordinator Ted Roof. Georgia Tech allows 21 points per game but the unit struggled in a 55-31 loss at Clemson on Nov. 14.

PROTECT MASON: Senior defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu has eight sacks as the leader of Georgia Tech's pass rush. The Yellow Jackets can be expected to try to rattle Mason in his first start. Mason needs good pass-blocking from his offensive line, led by tackles Kenarious Gates and John Theus. A strong running game led by Gurley also would be an effective answer to the Yellow Jackets' pass rush.

SPREAD-OPTION SUCCESS: Georgia Tech ranks fourth in the nation with its average of 316.1 yards rushing per game. David Sims leads the attack with 746 yards and 11 touchdowns. Robert Godhigh carries a gaudy average of 10.9 yards per carry and 19.9 yards per catch. Lee's favorite target is receiver DeAndre Smelter, who has 19 catches for 312 yards as a walk-on from the baseball team.

THAT'S NOT SPECIAL: Special teams breakdowns have helped to inflate Georgia's 10th-place ranking in the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense. Georgia's kicking teams have given up four touchdowns. Georgia Tech has not returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown this year.
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