CLEMSON — The beauty of Georgia Tech’s offense — with its options and counters, traps and pitches — is that it does not require the Clemson defense to be different, but to be at its best.
“It’s very hard to get 11 guys on defense to play with great discipline every snap,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said this week. “They wear you out doing the same thing over and over and over. Guys get bored real quick, and that’s when you have issues.”
At least once a year, Clemson faces this variation on an old theme, so Thursday night’s game in Death Valley becomes a time of wringing hands and gnashing teeth for the eighth-ranked Tigers.
“It’s not what you see, it’s not what you necessarily teach week to week,” Venables said, “but the scouting report stays the same year to year.
“It still comes down to being physical and executing and staying on your feet, putting your eyes where they belong.”
There’s no mystique to defending Georgia Tech. Every down is a potential run. Tech ranks fifth nationally and leads the ACC in rushing offense, averaging 311 yards per game. Stuff the run, game over. It’s no coincidence that Georgia Tech lost the two games with its lowest rushing totals — Virginia Tech (129) and BYU (237).
“There’s some simplicity in it,” Venables said. “If you’re whipping people up front, tackling soundly, staying on top of routes, not turning guys loose, you leverage the football, you win the game.”
Typically it’s not that simple.
“They’re more intricate than you might think,” Venables said. “They’re not running the same dive scheme. They change the schemes in what they’re doing to have some complexity.”
In last season’s game, Venables said, “they came out with a new formation and it took us a few series to get it adjusted.”
“That’s what they’re good at and I’m sure that’s what will happen this week,” he said. “Whether it’s a new play, new blocking scheme, new formation, there’s going to be something new.”
Tech rushed for 339 yards and led in the fourth quarter last season, but a safety and blocked field goal turned the game for Clemson, a 47-31 win. Senior David Sims has not had a negative rushing play this season and sophomore quarterback Vad Lee has passed for 1,006 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Their throwing game is high stress, which is why they have success throwing it,” Venables said. “They’re better because the quarterback is more accurate when he throws the ball. It forces you to play them in a completely different mode.”
Layering the potential complexity is coach Paul Johnson. In six seasons, his teams have rushed for more than 28,000 yards, more than any school in the nation. Johnson has won four of his six games against Clemson.
Johnson protects the offense’s reputation with indignant passion, snapping back at those who challenge the scheme’s relevance in an era where the pass prevails. He calls the plays from the sideline with a bold disregard for what other coaches take for granted.
Venables compared Johnson to Washington State coach Mike Leach, another swashbuckler with a different sword. In their minds, fourth down doesn’t necessitate a punt. Georgia Tech has punted 29 times this season. In the ACC, only Florida State has punted less frequently (27).
Confidence in the Tigers’ front seven gives Venables reason to believe Clemson might be better prepared this year.
“They do it very well. They do it in a precise way, you have to match that precision,” he said. “You have to wear them out with precision and discipline.”