Paul Johnson’s multifaceted ground attack has put up numbers through the first three games of the season that would make basement-dwelling video game connoisseurs blush.
Georgia Tech leads the country with a 59.33 scoring average and has scored 18 touchdowns on the ground. On Saturday against Kansas, the Yellow Jackets totaled 748 yards of offense (5th-highest in ACC history) and 604 rushing yards (ACC record).
Orwin Smith’s 95-yard touchdown run on Tech’s first play from scrimmage marked the third straight game that the Yellow Jackets scored on their opening play. Smith’s jaunt into the end zone represents one of six plays of 70 yards or more for Johnson’s unique offense this season.
“It was just mind-blowing for me when I saw that they had 600 yards rushing and 700 total yards,” UNC defensive tackle Tydreke Powell said. “That’s unheard of, so we’re definitely going to have our hands full.”
While the Yellow Jackets’ statistics on Saturday pale in comparison to the 1,620 yards and 32 touchdowns they posted in the 222-0 dismantling of Cumberland College in 1916, the numbers are still unfathomable in the modern era.
The widespread belief when Johnson brought his option attack to the ACC in 2008 was that conference teams would slowly grow accustomed to the offense and be able to shut it down more effectively. But the Yellow Jackets have ranked top-five in the country in offense and top-50 in total offense in each season since Johnson’s arrival.
UNC head coach Everett Withers told reporters during his weekly press conference on Monday that one week of practice on defending Georgia Tech’s offense is simply not enough. Over the past three springs, the Tar Heel defense has spent 3-4 days focusing on the Yellow Jackets’ rushing schemes.
“It’s always one of our summer prep offenses and it’s always one of our spring prep offenses that we spend the time on because it’s so unique,” Withers said. “I really believe that our kids understand this thing. Once you start playing this offense enough within your conference, within your side of the ball, you’re at least a little more familiar with it.”
But in Withers’s third attempt against this offense last September, Georgia Tech ran the ball 63 times for 372 yards, good for a 5.9 yards-per-carry average.
“Well, hopefully we’ll play the techniques and fundamentals better than last year,” Withers replied when asked about last year’s struggles. “Sometimes the best laid plans aren’t executed well. We want to execute better this year.”
Withers stressed the importance of being competitive in the time of possession battle, as well as the need for the UNC offense to capitalize on its drives by scoring touchdowns instead of field goals. He also provided some insight into defending Georgia Tech’s offense.
“[With] this offense, you’ve got to take things away from inside out,” Withers said. “You’ve got to take the dive away. They’ve always had that guy in that ‘B’ back position that’s been their No. 1 guy. Then you’ve got to take away the quarterback and then on the perimeter, you’ve got to leverage the ball and tackle the pitch. So to do that, you’ve got to be in the right spot [and] then off of that you’ve got to be able to handle the play-action pass.
“So it’s a disciplined game, but it’s also a team game. We’ve got to do a great job as a team.”
North Carolina entered last Saturday’s matchup with Virginia ranked third nationally in run defense (30.0 ypg), but Virginia had nearly quadrupled that statistic by halftime. The Cavaliers’ veteran offensive line prevented UNC’s vaunted front seven from doing much damage behind the line of scrimmage (only one negative play on 29 rushes).
Georgia Tech returned three starters along the offensive line this season, but left tackle Phil Smith was suspended the first two games of the season before returning against Kansas. All of the Yellow Jackets’ starters up front are in either their third or fourth years in this offensive scheme.
Smith leads Georgia Tech with 270 rushing yards and four touchdowns, but the junior has only carried the ball 12 times (22.5 ypc). B-back David Sims (30 carries, 205 yards, 3 TD) and quarterback/tailback Synjyn Days (38 carries, 214 yards, 4 TD) have taken the bulk of the reps for the Yellow Jackets, while starting quarterback Tevin Washington has made opponents pay with both his arm and his feet, running for 72 yards and two touchdowns and throwing for 637 yards and seven touchdowns.
“They just run the option really well,” Powell said. “Their offensive line comes off the ball really low, so the defensive line has to be disciplined and come off the ball and use our hands this week.”
Practice simulation is always difficult in replicating game speed, so Withers put the onus on his scout team to give UNC’s defense good looks this week in practice.
Defending an option offense boils down to one basic premise – discipline. Discipline in not over pursuing and in being patient against an offense that takes the air out of the ball. That will be the deciding factor in determining if North Carolina will improve to 4-0 for the first time since 1997.