ATLANTA — Paul Johnson was asked how he would stop Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense if he was on the other side.
“If I told you,” the Yellow Jackets coach quipped, “I’d have to kill you.”
No. 25 Georgia Tech (3-0) is off to a stunning start with its throwback scheme, leading the nation in scoring (nearly 60 points a game) along with rushing yards and total yards.
But the level of competition is about to go up. The Yellow Jackets ran over and through a lower-division school (Western Carolina) and a pair of FBS lightweights (Middle Tennessee and Kansas). They’ll likely face a much tougher test Saturday in their Atlantic Coast Conference opener against North Carolina.
The Tar Heels (3-0, 1-0 ACC) are a program in transition, facing serious NCA allegations and playing this season with an interim coach after dumping Butch Davis a week before the start of preseason practice. Still, they look much better on defense than any of the opponents Georgia Tech has faced so far.
“It’s been a straight dogfight the last two years trying to score points on them,” Johnson said. “They’re big and strong and physical. If we don’t play well, we’ll get embarrassed. We don’t have anything to be overconfident about.”
But the Yellow Jackets are certainly confident in their run-based scheme, which resembles the old wishbone except for the two halfbacks lining up in the slot rather than behind the quarterback (also, they’re known as A-backs in Johnson’s terminology).
Georgia Tech is running the ball more than 80 percent of the time, but befuddling opponents with a series of shifts, fakes and pitches. On those rare occasions when the Yellow Jackets do throw, the receiver often finds himself running all alone, the defense caught off guard because it must focus on stopping the run first.
Averaging 7.9 yards every time it runs the ball, Georgia Tech is piling up 427.7 yards per game on the ground. Seven of the 21 completions have gone for touchdowns, and the Yellow Jackets are averaging 35.4 yards when someone hauls in one of those rare throws.
The real key is unfamiliarity. Most teams just aren’t used to facing an offense like this in today’s pass-oriented game.
“Teams only have one week to prepare for this offense,” A-back Embry Peeples said. “It’s kind of hard to do in a week. There’s so many different things we do. When you’re game-planning for certain teams, you can key on two or three plays, but we might come out this week with four or five plays you’ve never seen before. That’s what makes it kind of hard for teams to stop. They have to key on a few plays rather than try to guess our whole playbook, which is impossible.”
North Carolina hasn’t won at Bobby Dodd Stadium since 1997, but the Tar Heels are rallying around interim coach Everett Withers, who took over a scandal-ridden program from Davis in late July with no guarantee of being around beyond this season.
A win over the Yellow Jackets would make Withers the first North Carolina coach to begin his career at 4-0 since the ACC was founded in 1953. Already, the Tar Heels are 3-0 for just the second time in the last 14 years and off to their first winning start in conference play in more than a decade.
This will be their first road test of the season.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Withers insisted. “We’re looking forward to going on the road and seeing what kind of team we are.”
The Tar Heels began their defensive preparations long before this week. As far back as spring practice, they put in time working against the triple-option, knowing it would be impossible to install everything they’d need in just a few days.
Withers is cautiously optimistic that his team will do a much better job than any of Georgia Tech’s first three opponents.
“It’s one of those offenses that you’ve got to spend time — not game week — working on,” the coach said. “You’ve got to be working on it during the spring and the summer, which we have. It’s always one of our summer prep offense, it’s always one of our spring prep offenses that we spend the time on, because it’s so unique. And I really believe our kids understand this thing.”
The North Carolina offense must do its part, too: control the clock, avoid turnovers and take advantage of every scoring opportunity. Sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner is completing more than 81 percent of his passes, but he’s also been picked off four times.
That won’t do against Georgia Tech.
“The stats they’ve put up the last three games, they’re fascinating,” Renner said. “We’re going to try to do everything possible just to keep the ball in our hands because they’re an explosive offense and a very good defense. We’ve got our hands full.”
The Tar Heels will be significantly short-handed on special teams, which could come into play if the game goes down to the wire. Senior Casey Barth is sidelined with a thigh injury, so redshirt freshman Thomas Moore, a walk-on, will take over the kicking duties.
But North Carolina is certainly used to facing adversity. Just this week, the school announced it would give up all 16 victories from the 2008 and ‘09 seasons and reduce scholarships as part of the probe into athletes accepting improper benefits and academic misconduct.
The NCAA could still impose harsher sanctions.
“To be honest, I have no idea what’s going on with the NCAA,” Renner said. “We just want to be great. And we’ve kind of just flushed out the outside distractions and focused on the task at hand. Coach Withers has done a great job of preaching that to us all season and the best thing about this team: we’ve got blinders on and we’re focused on a mission.”