It’s been five weeks since No. 6 Clemson’s faced a triple-option offense.
In most seasons, it’s more like 12 months, but the Tigers (4-0, 1-0 ACC) got a taste of how to prepare and how to shut down a scoring attack that requires great discipline and sound fundamentals when they held a similar offense in Wofford to 123 rushing yards in Week 1.
This time, though, the guys on the other side of the scrimmage line are a little bigger, a little faster and are coached by the godfather of the triple-option at this level: Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson.
“He came out of the womb coaching option football,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said this week. “He’s got answers. Throughout the course of the game, you better have some change-ups. If you’ve got one pitch, I don’t care how fast you bring it in there, he’s going to hit it. You better come with a Greg Maddux plan. You better come with multiple pitches. They’re so well-coached.”
Luckily for defensive coordinator Brent Venables, his unit is familiar with the base principles because the Tiger defense spent two weeks of fall camp prepping for Wofford. So Clemson expects to be prepared for the Yellow Jackets (2-3, 0-2), who visit Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 3:30 p.m., and the difficult assignment.
“It definitely helps us getting that (Wofford) game in early in the season,” Clemson safety Jayron Kearse said. “Just with Georgia Tech, anybody running that offense, it’s always difficult because everybody has got to play assignment football, keep the eyes on their key, be disciplined with their eyes because you can think somebody has the ball and the quarterback can be turning up the field, running for 40 yards.”
Tech quarterback Justin Thomas presents different challenges. He drops back and passes more than most triple-option signal callers, but the Yellow Jackets haven’t had the same consistency out of their receivers that they did last year. Outside of the first two games, when the Jackets put up 137 points against Alcorn State and Tulane, this offense hasn’t been nearly as efficient as a season ago.
A lot of that has to do with an offensive line that hasn’t jelled and a plethora of injuries to both the A-backs and B-backs in the running game.
“It has just been one of those years,” said Johnson, whose team is coming off a 38-31 loss to North Carolina. “And (injuries have) piled up at positions.”
That’s been Tech’s biggest offensive problem recently. Even though the team has had 12 of its 28 touchdowns scored in two minutes or less, the longest runs against both Duke and UNC were 24 and 20 yards, respectively — and both by Thomas. The Jackets, who have averaged 24.7 points and 215 rushing yards per game during a three-game losing skid, have also struggled in short-yardage situations, converting 35 percent on third downs.
A-back Broderick Snoddy, one of the team’s best rushers, sat out last Saturday with a hand issue, and his status for this week is unknown, while Qua Searcy is out long term with a lower extremity injury. It’s put a lot of pressure on B-back Patrick Skov, who leads the team with 319 yards and five touchdowns, and Thomas, who is averaging 3.2 yards per carry a year after putting up 5.7 yards per tote.
“From a feel standpoint, (Thomas) has a unique, instinctual skill set,” Venables said. “That’s the biggest thing. He’s got the speed to go along with it and a cannon of an arm to make all the throws.”
This is a Clemson defense, though, that held App State to fewer than 100 passing yards, allowed 19 rushing yards at Louisville and kept Notre Dame’s vaunted rushing game from getting going last week. So this is a confident unit that feels like it’s up to the task of stopping Georgia Tech.
“Margin of error isn’t much at all,” Venables said. “It’s a lot of stress mentally and physically for both coaches and players.”
Who: Clemson (4-0, 1-0 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (2-3, 0-2)
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Line: Clemson by 7