Every year, Georgia Tech cycles through the same eight teams on its schedule. And while each of those teams does all it can to prepare for the uniqueness of the triple option, only one of those teams over the last two years has turned its practice habits into gameday success.
On Saturday, the Yellow Jackets will travel 125 miles up I-85 to take on the Clemson Tigers and their defense which hasn’t just stopped Georgia Tech’s offense over the last two seasons.
They’ve dominated it.
“They’re good and we’ve played like garbage,” coach Paul Johnson said. “Certainly, we’ve got to play better, but they’ve been pretty good the last two years.”
Compared to the other seven teams, pretty good is a bit of an understatement. In the first three years of Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables tenure, the Yellow Jackets effectively move the football on his defense. In the last two, the Tigers have become the gold standard for taking down the triple option. The other seven teams -- Georgia, Miami, Pittsburgh, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech -- are still trying to discover Clemson’s secret.
In the last two seasons, Clemson is holding Georgia Tech to 15.5 points per game. The other seven teams are relinquishing 25 points per game. The Tigers defense is only giving up 83 rushing yards per game and 177 total yards per game. The other guys give up 255.5 rushing yards and 387.6 total yards.
And for a Georgia Tech team that loves possession, Clemson limits Georgia Tech to 28:54 of possession, 11.5 first downs per game and a 12.5 percent third down conversion success rate. Consistent with the other numbers, the seven teams let the Yellow Jackets have the ball for 33:04, give up 18.1 first downs per game and 37.4 percent on third down.
“They got ballers all over the field,” A-back J.J. Green said.
Those ballers dominated every facet of the triple option in the last two games. The middle of the offensive line -- what Johnson calls the “guard box” -- wasn’t been able to move the Clemson defensive tackles backwards. That allowed the defensive ends to crash inwards and take away any hope of establishing the B-back dive play.
When the Yellow Jackets tried going outside the tackles, the linebackers and defensive ends slipped right past cut blocks and were speedy enough to run down then-Tech quarterback Justin Thomas and the A-backs.
At this point Clemson forced Georgia Tech into a long, must-pass third down. The Tigers defense pinned its ears back and didn’t given Thomas any time to throw.
Knowing Clemson’s recent success, how is this year’s Yellow Jacket offense feeling before Saturday’s game? Like the last two years never happened.
“I think we will be a totally different Georgia Tech team coming in and I believe when the time ends Georgia Tech might come out with an upset,” B-back KirVonte Benson said.
The last time the Yellow Jackets were victorious against the Tigers was 2014. In that 28-6 win, Georgia Tech’s offensive output looked more like the averages against the teams not named Clemson (353 total yards, 251 rushing yards, 16 first downs, 34:55 time of possession and 50 percent on third down).
Right guard Shamire Devine, who was the offensive lineman of the week this past week, said he believes this year’s “guard box” is good enough to get the push upfront the Yellow Jackets have been missing the last two seasons. Going up against a salty defensive line like Clemson’s makes the challenge fun.
“When you just get to go out there and you get to beat him and he will occasionally beat you, and you aren’t even salty at each other. ‘He’s like that’s a good block man. You’re real big. And I’m like I know, I am trying to get like you,’” Devine said.
He will be exchanging many of those pleasantries with defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. Wilkins is the No. 1 defensive tackle prospect according to CBS Sports and odds are Lawrence will claim that spot next season. And defense end Clelin Ferrell is the No. 8 defensive end prospect.
But Georgia Tech isn’t worried about the hype surrounding the Clemson defensive line. Benson, who will clash with these guys on almost every play, said he sees them as just “regular people.”
“We can play with a top-10 team,” Benson said. “We showed that we can play with Miami. We showed that we can play with Tennessee.”
This season, the Clemson defense ranks 13th in Division I in rushing defense, allowing 107.9 yards per game. The Yellow Jackets are second in rushing offense at 372.8 yards per game.
For the Yellow Jackets to be successful, Devine, Green, Benson and quarterback TaQuon Marshall all said the same thing. The offense will need a fast start if they are to have any chance of winning. Last season, Georgia Tech’s first half possessions against Clemson netted 18 yards and five punts. Despite the Clemson’s defensive success, Marshall said the Yellow Jackets aren’t worried about changing anything on offense to start fast.
“We can’t worry about that. We have to stay true to us,” Marshall said. “We really do have to start off fast. But as long as we execute, we’ll be fine. I have confidence in (the guard box). They are going to do their job and we are going to get a push upfront. I am not too worried.”
It starts with that “guard box”. If Devine, center Kenny Cooper and left guard Parker Braun can get that win their individual battles, it opens the pitch plays, toss sweeps and play-action passes. And maybe then, the Yellow Jackets will make Clemson look like those other seven teams.