ATLANTA (AP) The most revealing plays of Saturday’s matchup of Georgia Tech’s running game against Clemson’s defense may come on third downs.
The outcome will help determine which team protects its Atlantic Coast Conference championship hopes.
It’s a matchup of strength against strength.
Georgia Tech’s offense leads the nation in third-down conversions. Clemson has the nation’s best defense on third downs.
The No. 24 Yellow Jackets are second in the nation in rushing. The No. 18 Tigers are second in total defense and fourth against the run.
Coach Paul Johnson said he can’t let Clemson’s imposing run defense influence his normal run-first attack in Georgia Tech’s spread option offense.
”We’re going to do what we do,” Johnson said Tuesday before using cliches to illustrate his point.
”We’ll be successful or they will, but we’re not going to throw out the baby with the bath water,” he said. ”Dance with the one that brung us. That’s all I know to do.”
Georgia Tech averages 335.6 yards rushing per game. Clemson allows an average of only 90.9 yards rushing.
Johnson said his offense must continue to avoid third-and-long plays. The Yellow Jackets have converted 70 of 118 third downs for a 59.3 percent success rate that leads the nation. Clemson’s defense is No. 1 by allowing first downs on only 23.2 percent of third-down plays.
Georgia Tech avoids difficult third-down situations by averaging 6.1 yards per carry. On the rare third-and-long plays, the option offense keeps defenses guessing.
”We haven’t been in a lot of third and longs because of the nature of what we do,” Johnson said. ”The nature of the offense, for a lot of teams third and 6 is a passing down. Not so much for us. … It limits blitzes. We’ve had some success running the ball against blitzes. … It makes the other team a little hesitant to jump in nickel and dime (packages), and all that stuff.”
Georgia Tech’s productive running game will be boosted by the return of former starting running back Zach Laskey, who missed three games with a shoulder injury. Johnson said Synjyn Days will start against Clemson and share carries with Laskey.
Days, a senior, ran for a career-high 157 yards with a touchdown in last week’s 56-23 win at North Carolina State. It was his third straight 100-yard game, but he said he was ”a little” surprised Laskey wasn’t returning as the starter.
”I guess coach has been pleased with my performance lately,” Days said. ”But I’m pretty sure we’re going to rotate because Zach is a great player. We both have great skill sets that I think will work well with each other.”
Georgia Tech (8-2, 5-2 ACC) is one game behind Duke in the Coastal Division. Clemson (7-2, 6-1) is chasing Florida State in the Atlantic Division.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Georgia Tech will be ”our most difficult challenge defensively, for sure.”
”They’re executing at a high level,” Swinney said. ”They’re always tough. They’re always in the top 10 in rushing every year.”
Quarterback Justin Thomas leads the Yellow Jackets with 781 yards rushing. Thomas has 14 touchdown passes – the high mark for any quarterback in Johnson’s seven years.
”Their quarterback is really playing at a high level, making good decisions and is a really good runner,” Swinney said. ”I don’t think he gets enough credit for his ability to throw the ball. They have made some big plays in the passing game.”
Backup quarterback Tim Byerly leads Georgia Tech with seven rushing touchdowns – one on every 6.4 carries.
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina, contributed to this report.