Defending the indefensible: UNC latest to attempt to solve Georgia Tech's option offense

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 20, 2013 

  • On the run

    Georgia Tech is averaging 356 rushing yards through its first two games this season, almost 100 more than anybody else in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets have led the ACC in rushing each year under Paul Johnson and had plenty of success against UNC, regardless of the Tar Heels’ coach or scheme.

    Season Avg. yards per game vs. UNC
    2012311.3380
    2011316.5312
    2010323.3372
    2009295.4317
    2008273.2326

— Vic Koenning and the defensive coaching staff at North Carolina went back and studied three years worth of Georgia Tech game film, searching for a secret that likely doesn’t exist. They began plotting a game plan in the summer.

Then the Yellow Jackets last weekend at Duke did something no coach at UNC had seen them do, and it proved how futile and frustrating it can be to develop any kind of plan against their spread-option offense. The new wrinkle was a new formation – a “diamond” set that Georgia Tech used with success.

“I’m sure they’ll have some more wrinkles,” Koenning, the UNC defensive coordinator, said of the Yellow Jackets, who host the Tar Heels on Saturday in Atlanta at Bobby Dodd Stadium. “One thing about (Georgia Tech coach) Paul (Johnson) – he’s probably forgotten more of this offense than what everybody else knows.”

People have described Johnson’s offense as a triple-option. And while that might be the simplest description, it’s one he has rejected in preference of the “spread-option.” Regardless of what anyone calls it, Johnson’s offense, which is a throwback to a bygone era, has routinely terrorized opposing defenses.

Johnson arrived at Georgia Tech before the 2008 season, and defenses are no closer now than they were then to figuring out a way to defend the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech’s offense is the oldest of the old-school, yet it’s the one that causes the most consternation on defensive coaching staffs – especially those that face it annually.

Larry Fedora, the second-year UNC head coach, was a part of a coaching staff that ran the triple-option during his days as an assistant at Air Force. Last season, he was on the other side of it – a helpless bystander while Georgia Tech amassed 380 yards rushing during its 68-50 victory at Kenan Stadium.

The Tar Heels defense experienced low points in fourth-quarter collapses during defeats against Wake Forest and Duke. But the performance against Georgia Tech might have been the lowest of the lows, and Koenning earlier this week said he still “felt bad for the fans and for everybody” who watched the annihilation.

“(We had) a bunch of kids in the second half that weren’t capable of stopping them,” he said. “It got away from us.”

Diamond formation adds wrinkle, problems

The Tar Heels aren’t alone. The Yellow Jackets ran for at least 344 yards in their first two victories of the season – one-sided triumphs against Elon and Duke. Since Johnson arrived, Georgia Tech has gained at least 300 yards rushing in 39 of its 69 games. They’ve led the ACC in rushing all five seasons and the nation once.

It’s easy enough to describe the offense. The quarterback takes the snap, reads the defense and then decides to hand to the fullback, pitch to another back or keep it and run, or throw. Stopping it, though, has confounded defenses for decades.

“It’s totally different than anything else you see,” Fedora said. “And then your blitzes, most of your blitzes don’t fit up at all. … So it keeps you very simple in what you do defensively, if you’re going to know your option responsibilities.

“So when you become simple – Paul’s been doing this and running this offense since he was probably in diapers, and he knows all the answers. …Whatever you throw at him, he’s seen it. I promise you. And he’s going to find a way.”

Fedora thought he and he his staff had spent plenty of time scouting the Yellow Jackets. And then came Georgia Tech’s 38-14 victory at Duke on Saturday, when the Yellow Jackets ran what Fedora described as “a new offense.” That would be the diamond formation – quarterback Vad Lee in the shotgun, one slotback to his right, another to his left, with the fullback in the back.

Johnson, rarely one to express all that much excitement, made it sound earlier this week like the diamond formation had been part of the Yellow Jackets’ offense for a while. That would have been news to Fedora and his staff.

“It’s just a little changeup,” Johnson said. “… And we can run most of the same plays that we run from under center out of it. In the game Saturday, we only ran a couple plays. So how much we'll use it, who knows. We'll see. If we feel like we need it, it's there, available, a change of pace.

“We may line up in it and run a whole game, or may line up in it and run none.”

The formation caused Duke a lot of problems, especially since the Blue Devils had never seen it. Not only could Georgia Tech run its triple-option plays out of the formation, but it also allowed Lee, a former standout at Hillside High in Durham, more of an opportunity to pass.

He took advantage, and threw four touchdown passes – the most in any Georgia Tech game under Johnson.

“Usually Georgia Tech does the same thing every year,” Kenny Anunike, the Duke defensive end, said earlier this week. “But this time they just threw something different at us that wasn’t on tape. It was a good mix of everything – of their conventional style, which is not really a conventional style. And then also with that diamond thrown in.

“They would come out, you wouldn’t know what they were going to line up in.”

Old school offense still has no answers

The diamond formation has the potential to make an already-unpredictable offense even more so. There is one thing, at least, opposing defenses can count on when playing against the Yellow Jackets: Georgia Tech will rely on cut blocking.

To better prepare their players for being blocked below the knees, UNC’s coaching staff instructed the scout team to engage in cut blocking during practices. That’s a rare practice, given the concern for injuries, but Fedora implied the potential reward outweighed the risk of injuries.

“Guys either learn how to play the cut block and still go and make plays, or they don’t,” Fedora said. “And Georgia Tech’s offense is betting that you’re not going to be able to play it, because you don’t see it that often.”

Defenses nowadays don’t often see much of anything that Georgia Tech does. Despite the success of Johnson’s offense, few imitators have emerged – through it has become common for spread teams to utilize parts of an option playbook.

At UNC, Fedora’s version of the spread is based on spreading the defense horizontally, and taking advantage of one-on-one mismatches. The concept is the same at Georgia Tech, which often exploits a defense’s over-aggressiveness.

“Georgia Tech, they do an excellent job of game-planning mid-drive,” said Tim Jackson, UNC’s senior defensive tackle. “So they’ll see a guy who’s probably biting on the dive too much, or shooting up field, and next thing you know, they’ll scheme up a play where they read that guy specifically. …

“So you really have to be technically sound. Assignment discipline.”

That’s easier said than done. Johnson’s offense works because of his quarterback’s ability to make quick reads, and those reads exist only after a defensive player has committed to move.

Over the years, offenses like Johnson’s have fallen out of favor amid the rise of pro-style schemes and pass-happy spreads. Even when run-heavy option offenses were more common, though, the defenses then left behind no blueprint of how to stop them – no proven way to defend plays that, when properly executed, are virtually indefensible.

Koenning began his coaching career in the mid-1980s, when even then an offense like Johnson’s might have been considered antiquated. Recently, he and his staff went looking through Georgia Tech’s game film for rare formations and trick plays. They were searching, too, for basic answers.

“You can go around and you can talk to a zillion different people about a zillion different ways of stopping it - from wide tackle sixes, to Tom Cruise’s 6-2 stack monster,” Koenning said, referring to the 1983 movie “All the Right Moves.”

“… There’s as many different ways of trying to stop it as there is probably formation and plays in it. So I don’t know that anybody’s figured it out because if they had it figured it out then everybody would be copying it.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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