Georgia Tech's Offense Is Becoming a More Viable Option

"It's an offense, just like anything else," said Paul Johnson, current Georgia Tech and former Navy head coach. "It's as good as you can execute it." (By Phil Coale -- Associated Press)
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By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 13 -- When Paul Johnson is asked about Georgia Tech's triple-option offense, he sounds puzzled by the intrigue surrounding the scheme he has coached for some 20 years. But when lining up against that option attack, opposing defenses sometimes react with similar perplexity.

"That offense is going to be a pain in the tail" to defend, said Bud Foster, the defensive coordinator for No. 4 Virginia Tech (5-1, 3-0 ACC), which faces No. 19 Georgia Tech (5-1, 3-1) in Atlanta on Saturday. "They're going to get yards, and they're going to get rushing yards."

When Johnson took over at Georgia Tech in December 2007 after five seasons leading division I-AA Georgia Southern and six seasons as the coach at Navy, the question was whether his option offense -- which is often used by smaller schools to neutralize disadvantages in athleticism -- would translate successfully to a Bowl Championship Series conference.

The numbers are not conclusive, but the Yellow Jackets have had offensive success and they have been winning. So far, Georgia Tech's offense is outpacing its production from last year, ranking fourth nationally in rushing offense (277 yards per game) and 24th in total offense (426.7 yards per game). The Yellow Jackets have rushed for more than 300 yards in four games this season. In a 24-7 win over North Carolina on Sept. 26, they held the ball for 42 minutes 6 seconds.

Yet opposing teams have done better against the option as the game wears on; the Yellow Jackets are averaging 8.2 yards per rush in the first quarter, compared with 3.7 in the fourth.

Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska coach, used the option attack as a potent weapon en route to national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997. He said it could have success in today's game.

"Everything depends on the quality of athletes you have and your execution," Osborne, now the Nebraska athletic director, said in a telephone interview. "If you have good athletes and you execute well, I think its every bit as viable as it was 10 years or 20 years ago."

But since Osborne's time, the option offense has become something of a retro outfit. The success Coach Urban Meyer has had with his brand of spread offense, in which he has employed multiple-receiver sets at Florida and other coaching stops, has helped it flourish around the nation. Georgia Tech's old-school attack has become tough to handle because teams are simply not as accustomed to it.

"It's an offense, just like anything else," Johnson said this week in a teleconference. "It's as good as you can execute it. Is it different? In some ways. In others ways, it's not as different as you make it out to be."

Navy senior center Curtis Bass, who played under Johnson, said recently that Johnson was "fearless" with the offense. "He didn't care who it was, what we were running," Bass said, "he felt like we could be successful."

The triple option forces defenses to adhere to assignments: one player takes the dive man, another tracks the quarterback and a third picks up the pitch man. The quarterback reads the defense and has three choices: to hand it off, to pitch it or to keep it. Well-blocked option plays are designed for big gains, and the run-first philosophy has opened up occasional deep passes. This season, for example, Georgia Tech has had 30 plays of 20 yards or more, and five of its touchdowns came on plays of 50 yards or more.

Virginia Tech's defensive weakness has been its susceptibility to big plays. This season, the Hokies have allowed 22 plays of 20 or more yards as a result of poor tackling, mental mistakes, miscommunications and sometimes a combination of all three.

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