“Not really,” he said. “I don’t have any idea why. Conference games (and here Johnson paused, seeming to attempt to formulate a theory) … couldn’t tell you.”
Queried for their thoughts, Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson started out by noting that Johnson is a good coach with successful teams. Cutcliffe called Johnson and his staff “outstanding.”
Said Cutcliffe, “They have a good record against a lot of people, nonconference and otherwise.”
But the two coaches, and North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, also seized upon the easy explanation that Tech’s unorthodox spread-option offense is more difficult to defend for teams that play the Jackets only periodically. (In the current arrangement, other than their permanent crossover partner, ACC teams play cross-division opponents roughly once every six years.)
Clawson called it “a tough prep.” Cutcliffe said there was no question that teams that don’t see the Jackets regularly have a more difficult time preparing.
Teams in the Atlantic “probably don’t think about the triple option or the option game that Paul utilizes on a daily basis,” Fedora said, “where probably the teams in the Coastal Division that play them every year probably spend a lot more time on it.”
Two games that support the theory are the Jackets’ 49-44 shootout win over Florida State in 2009 and the 56-0 humiliation of Syracuse in 2013. After the latter, Johnson was asked why Tech only threw the ball five times in 72 plays.
“The way they were playing, there was really no use,” he said.
However, against teams in the Atlantic besides Clemson (and, for that matter, including Clemson), Tech hasn’t necessarily run wild, effecting a spree of out-of-position defensive tackles, cornerbacks spilled to the turf by cut blocks and safeties watching play-action passes sail over their heads.
In the 14 games, Tech has exceeded its season averages against ACC opponents for both total offense and points just four times.
Actually, the Jackets have actually been under the averages for both total offense and points against ACC teams five times, the opposite outcome that the theory proposes.
That includes two of the three wins over Boston College (2008 and 2016) and the Miracle on Techwood Drive win over FSU in 2015. In those games, strong play by Tech’s defense and, memorably, special teams, made the difference.
Evidently, the answer to all questions about Tech isn’t always “Paul Johnson’s offense.”
Probably a part of it, too, is that the Jackets haven’t taken on a string of powerhouses. Only three of the 14 opponents finished the season in the Top 25 (FSU in 2008 and 2015 and N.C. State in 2010, the sole team to beat the Jackets). Four of the 14 teams had league records of 2-6 or 1-7. And, for the purposes of this somewhat arbitrary exercise, it helps that Clemson is not included. The Jackets are 5-5 against the Tigers in Johnson’s tenure.
Still, other Coastal teams have had a similar advantage, and none are close to Tech. From 2008 through 2016, North Carolina was 9-5.
Also, Cutcliffe and Clawson are right. Under Johnson, Tech has consistently been competitive, avoiding disaster all but the 2015 season. Johnson, along with Cutcliffe, are the ACC’s deans for a reason.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the 14-game set is that Tech is 8-0 in games decided by six points or fewer, including the past two. While many Tech fans may believe that last-second, come-from-ahead defeat is simply an accepted part of life supporting the Jackets, particularly after this season’s last-second losses to Tennessee and Miami, the Jackets have won far more than their share of last-possession thrillers in this group of games.
Some of the most memorable plays in Johnson’s run – Cooper Taylor’s forced fumble and Rashaad Reid’s end-zone recovery against Florida State in 2008, Johnson’s gutsy (and successful) decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime against Wake Forest in 2009, Lance Austin’s return of a blocked field-goal attempt for a touchdown against the Seminoles in 2015 and Justin Thomas’ conversion of a fourth-and-19 against Boston College last year in Dublin – have victimized the non-Clemson Atlantic cohort. The luck that has often eluded Tech in games against Miami and Virginia Tech has evidently been unloaded here.
Tech’s main goal Saturday will be earning its fourth win of the season. Will it help that Wake Forest, which hasn’t played Tech since 2010 and won’t reappear on the Jackets’ schedule until 2024, is an Atlantic Division team not named Clemson?
Hard to say. But it apparently won’t hurt.