DURHAM, N.C. — When Duke head coach David Cutcliffe opened his weekly press conference on Tuesday, he said, “I guess the question would be who’s got the dive, who’s got the quarterback and who’s got the pitch?”
A roomful of reporters didn’t know the answer to that somewhat-joking question, and plenty of ACC opponents seemingly don’t, either.
As an offensive coordinator, Cutcliffe used to joke with defensive coaches the option really isn’t that complicated to defend. And it isn’t. But it is tough to get used to defending, and that’s the key.
As the narrative goes, Georgia Tech’s tricky triple-option offense, under head coach Paul Johnson (who UNC defensive coordinator Vic Koenning called “guru king daddy”), can be successfully defended if the opponent has extra time to prepare.
But is that really true?
The easy answer is yes … and no.
Georgia Tech is 5-12 under Johnson against FBS opponents that have had extra time to prepare (30-14 in all other FBS games), whether as a season-opener (0-1) or bowl game (1-3).
But of the 12 losses, six were to ranked teams, including five on the road or at neutral sites. All told, nine losses were on the road or neutral.
It didn’t help that in Johnson’s first two years at Georgia Tech, his teams were 16-3 against FBS opponents without extra time and 1-4 otherwise. (That one win came against No. 13 Georgia in Athens in 2008, something that rarely gets brought up in this discussion.)
So that became the easy narrative: Extra time means extra prep, which means a surefire win!
In the last three seasons, though, Georgia Tech is 14-11 in “regular” FBS games and 4-8 against opponents with extra time.
This week, Duke hosts Georgia Tech without the benefit of an extra week. North Carolina, heading into the Sept. 21 game in Atlanta, will be coming off a bye. But does it matter?
Well, it certainly doesn’t for those two teams. After Cutcliffe lost to Johnson in his first two years by a 76-10, Cutcliffe has kept it much closer recently. The last three outings have been decided by an average of 15 points, and even that is skewed by a 42-24 Georgia Tech victory last year.
And last year was Duke’s first time with a bye against Georgia Tech -— not that it matters much, since Cutcliffe often sprinkles in option work throughout the offseason.
“Certainly, I think most of us would rather have a bye week to prepare for it, to be real honest with you. But we have put the time in camp, we’ve put time in spring practice into this. We’re very systematic in our approach,” Cutcliffe said.
“That’s just been our approach to the preparation. We started doing that when we got here. … We put a period every day in that first spring because that year, we were playing Georgia Tech, Navy and Army. We had three of them. I was ready to go independent. It’s just really proved to be good to us. We’ve really fought hard and had some chances against these people, but we haven’t beaten them yet. That’s the bottom line.”
Last year, the Yellow Jackets beat the Tar Heels 68-50 at Kenan Stadium, their third road win ever (second in ACC play) against an opponent coming off a bye under Johnson.
Who did the other ACC road win come against? You guessed it — at North Carolina, in 2010 (30-24).
The Tar Heels have been the victim in nearly half the Yellow Jackets’ wins over opponents off a bye week (two), but UNC has also been the most common opponent.
Or, at least the Tar Heels will be after this year’s game. (Virginia Tech opened with Georgia Tech last year, if you want to count that one as extra prep time, and won.)
This is Johnson’s sixth season with Georgia Tech, and after next week, the Tar Heels will have had a bye four times before facing the Yellow Jackets. Considering they are Coastal Division foes, that little feat of scheduling has to drive Johnson insane.
But then again, UNC is 1-4 against Johnson overall and 1-2 coming off a bye.
Even after surrendering 68 points in a single outing last year, North Carolina’s defense doesn’t perform much differently from a points-allowed perspective (29.5 without a bye, and 35.0 with a bye — including last season).
The UNC offense had not broken 28 points against Georgia Tech in Johnson’s tenure until last season. Tech’s previous average in two games against a UNC team coming off a bye was 18.5 points. They had 50 more than that last year at UNC.
So the question is: Even though both Duke and UNC lost to Georgia Tech last year after byes, does a bye week actually help?
Koenning says yes. But he also still hears Fedora’s voice in his head after the 68-50 loss last year, saying, “Well, that’s what I got for to weeks’ practice?”
“I’ll never forget that,” Koenning said. “I didn’t have any response to it, just, you know, sorry.
“We worked our tail off. We’re working our tail off now. We researched in the summer best ways to stop it. We researched in the summer last year and had a plan. Again, the plan we had last year had worked pretty good when we had as good or better players than them. They did come up with a couple schemes since the last time, and we adjusted during the game. We just didn’t make the plays.”
The triple option is not that complicated. Duke senior cornerback Garret Patterson said this week’s defensive game plan has been considerably streamlined. But simple doesn’t mean easy.
“It’s easier said than done because it’s a really grinding game,” Patterson said. “In the trenches, you have to fight cut blocks, all that stuff coming your way at the same time and it’s really fast, so you just have to keep on, keep on. Just because they make a couple yards there, you don’t give up. Next-play mentality. Line up and go at it again.”
Just because it’s the same few plays, though, doesn’t mean they’re always run the same way. Johnson has been good at adding nuance to his offense, and a number of things the Yellow Jackets did in Chapel Hill last year were things that North Carolina hadn’t seen on film yet.
“Paul’s going to do a great job of scheming you with different formations and unbalanced looks, try to outnumber you,” Fedora said. “If they’re balanced, you’ve got to be balanced. If they’re unbalanced, you have to be unbalanced and then he’s going to go to where the numbers aren’t and he’s going to go to where the grass is. It’s not a complicated offense. It’s complicated to defend.”
The psychological part of defending it, though, might be the biggest challenge. One mistake, and a Yellow Jacket can go streaking down the sideline for a big play or a touchdown. And then, of course, there are the cut blocks.
But the biggest challenge is defending against the run play after play after play, until finally, a play-action pass happens and all of a sudden, a defender has to chase a wide receiver after 7-8 run plays in a row.
“The toughest thing is to not get lulled to sleep. They run the ball, they run the ball, and then it’s first and ten and then they throw the ball for like 80 yards down the field,” Cockrell said. “That’s the hardest thing about it. You kind of get in a daze — option, option, option, and then the play-action and your guy’s 15 yards in front of you.”
It’s impossible not to blame UNC’s defense for last year’s high-scoring loss. But Fedora wanted to stick up for that unit a little bit, pointing out the Tar Heels gave the Yellow Jackets a short field repeatedly in the third quarter and allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown.
There’s still the other 44 points to account for, but he’s right about one thing: There is almost no margin for error on offense or special teams against Georgia Tech. It was more explosive and big-play-oriented against North Carolina than it’s known to be, but it certainly has that capability.
“You cannot win games (making mistakes), it’s too difficult to do, especially against a team that’s going to move the ball offensively like that,” Fedora said. “They’re going to move the ball. They’re going to score some points. We’ve got to make fewer mistakes than they do, and that goes back to discipline. That goes back to discipline and execute.”
Normally against Georgia Tech, there aren’t many drives at all because their drives are so long and methodical. Against Duke last year, they ran 86 plays in nine drives and held the ball for over 38 minutes. Duke’s defense didn’t allow big plays like the Tar Heels did, but they couldn’t get Georgia Tech off the field, either.
Duke kept it close last year, trailing just 28-24 late in the third quarter. But an 18-play, 75-yard touchdown drive later that took 8:31 off the clock (followed by a five-play Duke drive ending in a punt) meant the game was essentially over.
“(Georgia Tech) played about as good as you could play on offense a year ago. They just would not make a mistake,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve looked at that tape over and over again – our defense played really well against them last year. They’re going to get their runs. It’s just avoiding those big, hurtful big plays. We’ve got to do it again if we can. This (year’s) Georgia Tech team is a bigger challenge in that regard, to be honest with you.”
The two most common denominators players and coaches from both teams mentioned in slowing that offense down were getting them behind schedule on offense, and having a good scout team quarterback to help prepare the defense in the time leading up to the game.
UNC has walk-on running back Charles Brunson and senior cornerback Terry Shankle (who starts on defense) acting as Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee. And Koenning has instructed the scout team offensive linemen to cut the defensive players, too.
Duke has a bit of a secret weapon as a scout team quarterback in freshman Quay Chambers, who is a real quarterback himself and familiar with the option.
“Quay’s a big, fast, athletic guy, which is similar to what we’re going to see this weekend,” Cockrell said. “So he gives us a good look in terms of lowering his shoulder, trying to run people over, juking people, faking pitches. I’m excited that Quay’s there for us and he’s giving us a good look.”
And then the harder part — getting the Georgia Tech offense behind schedule. And by that, it means 3rd and long. More often than not, the Jackets will go for it on fourth down.
So in a way, Cutcliffe was right — Duke’s defense did the right thing last year. No big plays. Only Georgia Tech didn’t turn it over and went 13-of-20 on third down (not to mention 4-of-4 on fourth down).
Cockrell said they’ll approach this year’s game the same way, despite the frustration involved in last year’s result. “The strategy is good. You always want to make them go the long way on the field because they try to hit you early on with some big passing plays and try to get a short field,” Cockrell said.
“So we’re ready for that. But we’ve got to force more turnovers. We’ve got to stop them on fourth and third down. And we’ve got to make them — we’ve got to force penalties. We’ve got to make them go backwards, by whatever means necessary.”
And then there’s perhaps the least discussed aspect of beating Georgia Tech: being as good, or better, than they are.
Last year, Koenning said UNC’s defensive starters were so banged up there were true freshmen and scout team guys in the game by the end.
It was frustrating for Koenning to watch his players get the right angle to make a tackle.
But he also understood it was a mismatch. Sometimes, the other guy is just better.