The way Georgia Tech’s option offense is talked about in some college football circles, it would be easy to think the Yellow Jackets never lose.
Yes, the triple-option formations are unique in the ACC and present challenges that all Coastal Division teams must set aside additional time to try and solve. And at the end of last year, especially, several good teams failed — Clemson (28-6), Georgia (30-24, OT) and Mississippi State (49-34) were all stung by the Yellow Jackets, and Florida State was pushed in a narrow, 37-35 ACC Championship game win. The only other teams to beat Georgia Tech last year: Duke and North Carolina.
This year’s Georgia Tech team entered the season ranked No. 16, expected to continue where last year left off, thanks in large part to quarterback Justin Thomas, the best conductor of the triple option that coach Paul Johnson has had at Tech. But No. 6 Notre Dame served a reminder last weekend that, yes, the option can be stopped, as the Yellow Jackets trailed 30-7 with one minute left in the game. The Fighting Irish, though, have first-round NFL draft-type talent in their defensive line and linebacking corps, and that talent helps make tackles in space.
But still, both last year’s Tar Heels and Blue Devils notched their first wins of this decade against Georgia Tech, proving the option offense can be slowed down enough even without NFL-level talent. And the No. 20 Yellow Jackets (2-1) have another set of back-to-back games against Duke and UNC this year, taking on the Blue Devils in Durham on Saturday and hosting the Tar Heels seven days later.
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"Last year our mindset was that we have to out-rush them, we have to be more physical than them, because their whole mantra is, ‘We’re going to be tougher than you, we’re going to play better sound football than you,’” Duke center Matt Skura said. "(Offensive line coach John) Latina, the first thing he said was, you’re not only playing against Georgia Tech’s defense, you’re playing against their offense as well. Every drive is extremely important, that you are either scoring a touchdown or scoring a field goal because as soon as you get behind Georgia Tech, it’s really hard to come back because they are eating up clock."
With the run-heavy, 3 yards and a cloud of dust offensive approach, the Yellow Jackets tend to have long possessions that can last five, six, seven minutes, eating away a large portion of a 15-minute quarter and reducing the chances for an opponent to score. Last year, Georgia Tech had one possession in each game that was longer than six minutes. And in 2013, when they beat Duke and UNC, there were four such 6-plus minute possessions between the two games.
"There are a lot of ways to look at it," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "One of them is that you tend to sometimes push a panic button and say we have to stay on the field, we’ve got to make some first downs. The other part of you wants to panic and say, we’ve got to go score. There’s a balance of being true to who you are."
Both Duke and UNC like to play up-tempo on offense, which risks wearing out its defense out if the offense strings together too many short possessions (this was an issue in the Blue Devils’ loss to Northwestern). And both teams stayed on the field against the Yellow Jackets last year, registering just one three-and-out drive without a first down.
To avoid quick drives, obviously it’s best to set up manageable third-down attempts, which Duke and UNC did last year, too. The Tar Heels were 10-of-15 on third down, with just six of those attempts coming from 6 or more yards. Duke was 6-of-13 and stuck in third-and-long just five times.
"You can't screw up," UNC coach Larry Fedora said before last year’s Georgia Tech game. "You've got to be very, very efficient offensively. You have to move the chains and you have to put the ball in the end zone when you get the opportunity."
Duke averaged 38 rushing attempts and 181.9 rushing yards per game last year. Against Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils ran it 47 times for 242 yards. The Tar Heels made a less dramatic effort to run the ball more (and chew up more clock time in the process) but still exceded their average. UNC ran it 41 times against Georgia Tech (compared to an average of 38 times per game) for 189 yards, better than its season average of 151.4 yards.
And with that running success, both teams cut into the Yellow Jackets’ time of possession: Duke held the ball for 29:44 of the 60-minute game, and UNC had it for 28:30, up from its ACC-low average of 25:38. Georgia Tech averaged almost 35 minutes on offense last season.
All of the best practices to beat the option — sound tackling and good gap discipline on defense, and strong, physical offensive play, an effective running game and manageable third downs on offense —are best practices to win games in general. There’s no magic formula to beat the option.
“If both teams have 11 possessions, both teams have 11 possessions,” Cutcliffe said. “If both teams have 10 — it’s no different than when both teams have 15 possessions. The focus has to be on playing well.”