RALEIGH, N.C. — Nobody has been able to stop Georgia Tech’s offense so far.
That doesn’t seem likely to change today when the 21st-ranked Yellow Jackets will line up the nation’s most productive offense against a North Carolina State defense that has been riddled by injuries.
Coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option system has long been known for its gaudy production on the ground. Now that the Yellow Jackets (4-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) have figured out how to put the ball in the air, they’ve been unstoppable, leading the nation with averages of 53 points and 630.5 total yards.
That’s a big reason why they’re off to their best start since their national championship season of 1990.
“It makes them not one-dimensional now. Last year, you kind of could come up on the run,” N.C. State defensive tackle Darryl Cato-Bishop said. “You’ve got to focus on them throwing the ball as well out of their formations. We do our job up front, and as a team on defense, getting to the ball, we should be fine.”
Easier said than done, especially for an N.C. State defense that hasn’t been healthy — or particularly stout — all year.
Coach Tom O’Brien says the Wolfpack (2-2, 0-1), down to two healthy defensive tackles, have moved Cato-Bishop from defensive end. A two-way walk-on transfer from Campbell suddenly has shown up on the depth chart. In little over a month, N.C. State has lost five defensive linemen to injuries of varying degrees of severity, and expects to start its third different combination of linemen in five games.
“Their backs are up against the wall a little bit,” Johnson said. “So, I’m sure we’ll get their best shot.”
It may not be enough. N.C. State ranks 93rd nationally in total defense, giving up more than 408 yards per game. That makes for an apparent mismatch of epic proportions against a Georgia Tech team that is rushing for nearly 400 yards per game and is getting production from just about everyone. Three Yellow Jackets average at least 70 yards rushing, and running back Orwin Smith scores a touchdown roughly every fifth time he touches the ball on offense.
“It doesn’t matter” who gets the ball, Johnson said. “You just kind of run the system, and if they want to take away (running back) David Sims, then OK, we’ll give it to Orwin Smith. If they want to take away Orwin, then we’ll give it to whoever. It’s not so much tweaking it to get the ball to certain individuals, as it is just kind of running the system.”
And it helps that the man running the show — first-year starting quarterback Tevin Washington — is throwing for 205 yards per game — significantly more than the 75 yards that run-first QB Joshua Nesbitt averaged last year.
“Everyone knows they’ve had some injuries, but a lot of the guys are back from the same team that came down and beat us last year,” Washington said. “It’ll be interesting to see how they come after us. Nobody can look at us and say we’re one-dimensional.”
So, if the Wolfpack can’t stop the Yellow Jackets, maybe they can try to outscore them.
That strategy almost certainly will have to center around the passing combination of Mike Glennon and receiver T.J. Graham. Those two have connected for four touchdown passes covering at least 49 yards this season.
N.C. State needs those big plays through the air because the Wolfpack have gotten little help on the ground.
They haven’t had projected starting running back Mustafa Greene all season — he has been out with a lingering foot injury suffered during spring practice — and rank 109th nationally in rushing, averaging 85 yards per game.
“The thing that we have to do more is stay on schedule,” O’Brien said. “We can’t get behind the schedule. We have to be on time and not be in a lot of third-and-longs, which means we have to run the ball better ... because you don’t want to be in third-and-long protecting.”