ATLANTA — Bobby Johnson may know more about Paul Johnson’s spread option offense than any other head coach in the nation.
That could be bad news for Paul Johnson and No. 11 Georgia Tech — but only if Bobby Johnson has enough time to pass his knowledge to his Vanderbilt players.
The former Southern Conference coaching rivals will meet for the ninth time when Georgia Tech plays at Vanderbilt on Saturday night. Georgia Tech (7-1) brings a five-game winning streak into Nashville, while Vanderbilt (2-6) has lost four straight.
An equalizer could be Bobby Johnson’s familiarity with the Georgia Tech offense, but he says one week may not be enough time for his players to learn how to defend the spread option, including the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option plays with quarterback Josh Nesbitt, running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Anthony Allen and leading receiver Demaryius Thomas.
"I have a pretty good knowledge of what he does, but for me to get that over to our players is the trick," said Bobby Johnson, who said defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler "has been working against that offense for years and years."
"There are all kinds of things that we could dream up, but you can’t get them taught that quickly," Johnson said.
Paul Johnson and Bobby Johnson were annual opponents when the two battled for Southern Conference bragging rights at Georgia Southern and Furman, respectively.
Each coach took bigger jobs in 2002. Paul Johnson, who was at Georgia Southern from 1997-2001 and won national championships in 1999 and 2000, was hired by Navy. Bobby Johnson, who was the head coach at Furman from 1994-2001, was hired by Vanderbilt.
Paul Johnson is 6-2 against Bobby Johnson, including 4-2 at Georgia Southern. The coaching rivalry continued with Navy’s wins over Vanderbilt in 2003 and ‘04.
"I’ve got a lot of respect for Bobby Johnson," said Paul Johnson, who is 16-5 in his second season in Atlanta. "He and I go back a ways. They’re going to have a good idea of what we’re doing and they always have a good plan against us."
The two coaches agree that knowledge of the offense does not provide any secrets to stopping the attack.
"We’ve been around long enough and Bobby understands, he’s a good coach, there is no magic blueprint to stop it," Paul Johnson said. "There is no way you line up. You just have to make plays. You have to beat blocks and make plays just like against any other offense. There have been times they’ve done a great job of it and times we’ve scored on them."
Vanderbilt has not scored more than 10 points in any of its five SEC games — all losses — but it ranks a respectable 23rd in the nation with its average of 17.8 points allowed. The Commodores are coming off a 14-10 loss at South Carolina.
Georgia Tech is averaging 32.6 points, leads the nation in time of possession and ranks second with 292 yards rushing per game. The Yellow Jackets had 71 rushing attempts and held the ball almost 43 minutes in last week’s 34-9 win at Virginia.
Bobby Johnson said the offense creates one-on-one matchups. One breakdown on defense leads to big plays for Georgia Tech.
"The problem is that no matter how much I know or our coaches know, you’ve got to get it taught to the players," Bobby Johnson said. "It’s something they don’t see very often.
"You just have to be as simple as possible for your players so they can at least try to execute and maybe have a surprise look here and there just to slow them down a little bit. Other than that, it’s just beating blocks and making tackles."
Paul Johnson says he becomes frustrated with the predictable criticisms of the offense. When he was hired by Georgia Tech, he heard the scheme wouldn’t work in a major conference. Then the talk was opposing teams would adjust in the second season.
He says every loss, however rare, prompts critics to say, "’Here’s the blueprint. It’s over now. That’s the way you stop the offense. It’s dead now.’
"And you don’t hear that with other offenses," he said.
Paul Johnson doesn’t have to worry about hearing that criticism from this week’s opposing coach.
"There is no key," said Bobby Johnson, when asked about stopping the spread option. "If there were a key, someone would have it. Nobody has figured it out and there is no way to figure it out."