In first-ever Georgia Tech-Louisville matchup, plenty of familiarity

Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson was born Aug. 20, 1957, in Newland, North Carolina. Johnson was hired and introduced Dec. 7, 2007 as Tech's 12th football coach, beginning with John Heisman in 1904. Tech defeated Jacksonville State 41-14 on Aug. 28, 2008, in Johnson's debut as Yellow Jackets coach. Johnson's Georgia Southern teams won Division I-AA (now FCS) national championships in 1999 and 2000. Johnson coached six seasons at Navy and was 43-19 over the final five, after a 2-10 first season. Jo

In anticipation of its first-ever matchup with Georgia Tech, Louisville has gone about the same processes as most of the Yellow Jackets’ longtime competitors. Namely, getting a head start on preparing for coach Paul Johnson’s spread-option offense, even though the Cardinals and Jackets won’t meet until Oct. 5, the sixth game of Louisville’s season (as well as Tech’s).

“We have to,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino told the AJC Thursday at the ACC Kickoff. “That’s a unique offense that they do as well as anybody in the country. So we had to spend some time in spring ball. We’ll spend some time during (preseason) camp on it so that we get things on video and be able to teach off of it and get ready.”

In the spring, Louisville players worked on reading the keys against the option, linebacker Jonathan Greenard said.

“Reading the tackles, reading the guards, their sets and basically being ready to play the cut (block) and stuff like that,” said Greenard, from Hiram High in Paulding County. “Just kind of getting of getting it on our minds just so we’re not jumped into it as soon as we get there. Georgia Tech’s not a game you (prepare for in one week). They can do so much in that offense.”

The rotating crossover game against Atlantic Division teams has been supremely kind to Tech in Johnson's tenure. Starting in 2008, Tech is 14-1 in the crossover games, not counting ACC championship games.

It’s a game that Greenard, one of 23 players from Georgia on the Cardinals roster, is anticipating.

“I actually wish we played them at Georgia Tech so I could actually get a chance to go back home,” he said. “However, I think it’s a grand opportunity. When you play against a team like Georgia Tech, known for their traditional triple option, it’s an honor to play them. You have to respect the game when you play them.”

Greenard, who played one season of youth football with Tech A-back Clinton Lynch and is also friends with defensive back Jaytlin Askew, is also motivated by the fact that Tech did not offer him a scholarship. What will that do for him?

“A lot more juice (motivation),” said Greenard, who had seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season, the latter total tied for fifth in the ACC. “A whole lot more juice.”

The game will also be Tech’s first regular-season Friday game since 1994, which was against Georgia the day after Thanksgiving. Louisville played two Friday-night games in 2016 as part of ESPN’s package.

“Think of it as if you’re playing a high-school game all over again, but just at that next level,” Greenard said. “It’s almost like a reunion, so that built-up emotion, the feeling of how you had it in high school, it’s just coming back and it’s perfect.”

On the subject of reunions, Johnson will match wits again with Cardinals defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who held the same position at Notre Dame in 2015 when the Fighting Irish defeated the Yellow Jackets in a meeting of top-15 teams.

“We work (the preparation of the defense) together, but the good thing is, coach VanGorder played against (Johnson’s offense) also and so he has some great beliefs in how to stop the option,” Petrino said.

In 2015, Notre Dame limited Tech to 216 rushing yards and 337 yards of total offense in the 30-22 Fighting Irish win. Asked about VanGorder on Wednesday, Johnson was ready with a reply.

“Well, we saw him at Notre Dame,” Johnson said. “We also saw him two years ago at Georgia.”

It was a more favorable result for Tech and Johnson. In 2016, after VanGorder had been fired at Notre Dame four games into the season, Georgia coach Kirby Smart hired VanGorder as a consultant, specifically to help the Bulldogs stop Tech’s spread-option offense. The Yellow Jackets gained 226 rushing yards, but moved the ball when it counted, driving for two fourth-quarter touchdowns to stun the Bulldogs 28-27.

The history doesn't end there. When VanGorder was hired at Georgia Southern as its head coach in December 2005 – following the firing of Mike Sewak, a longtime assistant to Johnson – he jettisoned the option scheme that had led the Eagles to six Division I-AA (now FCS) championships. He also apparently took potshots at Johnson's offense, words that remained lodged in Johnson's memory when he brought them up before the Notre Dame game.

There are other connections between the staffs. Petrino’s brother, Paul, is coach at Idaho, where he coached against Tech defensive coordinator Nate Woody when he was coordinator at Appalachian State. Idaho was in the Sun Belt Conference with Appalachian State until leaving after last season.

“(Paul Petrino) has got all the respect in the world for him, says they do a really good job,” Bobby Petrino said.