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Clarkson: Georgia completes turnaroud with win against Tech

The regular season that began in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome under a cloud of scrutiny ended in the glorious sunlight of a 10-game winning streak and a shot at the Southeastern Conference championship.

Georgia calmly disposed of another major rival on Saturday, beating Georgia Tech 31-17 in Bobby Dodd Stadium. This weekend, the Bulldogs will return to the Georgia Dome to play No. 1-ranked LSU for the league title.

Georgia’s 10th win against the Yellow Jackets in the last 11 seasons didn’t come easily. Georgia Tech played hard and didn’t fall apart when pushed to the edge. The Yellow Jackets also exposed some shortcomings in Georgia’s rushing offense, which will probably figure heavily in LSU’s gameplan.

Since the second week of September, Georgia coach Mark Richt has silenced critics the best way possible, by winning a whole bunch of games. Richt has removed himself from all the “hot seat” lists and the win at Georgia Tech highlighted the Bulldogs’ return from mediocrity.

The game ended with a wild celebration capped by a somewhat boorish planting of the Georgia flag in the middle of Grant Field. But that’s bulletin board material for next year. Next week Georgia will play for the SEC championship.

THE GOOD: Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray rebounded from an erratic performance last week against Kentucky to post one of his most efficient games of the season.

Murray completed 19 of 29 passes for 252 yards and four touchdowns with one early interception. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Georgia could not sustain enough of a running game to knock Georgia Tech off-balance.

Murray spread the wealth, too. His four touchdown passes went to four different receivers — Tavarres King, Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Aron White. Orson Charles led the team with five receptions for 95 yards. In all, nine players caught passes, including cornerbacks Branden Smith and Brandon Boykin.

Saturday capped a standout regular season for the redshirt sophomore. He has thrown for 2,698 yards, 32 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He hasn’t been predictable either. Georgia has four receivers with between 31 and 40 catches.

THE BAD: If Georgia doesn’t get more production from its running backs than it did on Saturday, it won’t beat LSU.

Georgia gained 128 yards and converted seven first downs on the ground against Georgia Tech. But 36 of those yards and three of those first downs came on Georgia’s final clock-burning possession, all courtesy of Ken Malcome.

Isaiah Crowell was in uniform, but did not play because of an ankle injury. Carlton Thomas returned from his latest suspension, but only managed 6 yards on five carries. Malcome led the team with 39 yards, but only had 3 before the final drive.

Georgia should be used to playing without Crowell by now. The much-hyped freshman has completely missed two of the last four games either with injury or suspension. He sat most of a third after he hurt his ankle after just two carries against Kentucky.

Georgia’s concern about depth at running back reached the point where it gave cornerback Branden Smith five carries (20 yards) and two passes (13 yards). Georgia has been able to make-do against Georgia Tech, Kentucky and New Mexico State, but a backfield patched together with duct tape and baling wire won’t hold up against LSU.

THE UGLY: Georgia Tech’s run-first offense doesn’t usually throw the ball often, and Georgia made it look inept.

The Yellow Jackets completed 6 of 17 passes for 112 yards and Georgia Tech starting quarterback Tevin Washington was benched in the fourth quarter.

Georgia Tech has hurt opponents with big passing plays because defenses have to commit so much manpower and attention to the run. Georgia Tech hit a 20-yard pass that helped set up a second-quarter field goal. A 36-yard pass set up the Yellow Jackets’ fourth-quarter touchdown.

But those brief sparks of life were exceptions to a gloomy day through the air for the Yellow Jackets. When a team isn’t used to throwing and is forced to go to the air, that can be a recipe for disaster. The few times Georgia Tech had open receivers, Washington often missed and sometimes badly. He never looked comfortable in the pocket because of pressure. Georgia made him pay with interceptions by Michael Gilliard and Shawn Williams to go along with two sacks.

NEXT WEEK: Georgia (10-2) goes to Atlanta for the third time this season and will face LSU (12-0) in the SEC championship game on Saturday.

QUOTABLE: Aaron Murray’s penchant for spreading completions across the field made an impression on Georgia Tech linebacker Steven Sylvester.

“The amount of weapons they have, it’s tough to defend the tight end to the receivers,” Sylvester said. “Everybody’s capable of running good routes and catching balls that he throws, and Murray himself makes good plays with his feet. He can extend the plays and he can get out of the pocket, so kudos to them.”

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