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On the surface the Georgia Tech offense is not complicated. "Truthfully, there are probably five or six plays we run in a game, and we sprinkle in a handful of pass plays," says Brian Bohannon, the team's quarterbacks and B backs coach. The option is a nightmare to defend because it forces all 11 defenders to stick to their assignments and move laterally instead of pursuing the ball. When Florida State prepared for its Oct. 10 game with the Yellow Jackets, the Seminoles practiced without a ball so that each defender would learn to stay with his assigned man. All Georgia Tech did was run for 401 yards in a 49--44 victory.
What makes Johnson's option so effective is that it is so unlike anything defenses face these days. "Teams are dealing with what we had to deal with in the '70s," says Osborne. "When we faced Oklahoma with the wishbone, it was the only time we saw it. Two or three years later we saw it more, and we got better at defending it. But for a lot of these teams, it's not like you can teach your scout team how to run the option."
Opponents struggle with Tech's option even though they know Johnson's team will keep the ball mostly on the ground. A year ago the Jackets ran the ball 78.4% of the time; this year they are running it 83.3% of the time, third nationally behind Navy and Air Force (both of whom also run the triple option, as does Army). Over the past five games Georgia Tech has averaged a staggering 377.6 rushing yards a game, including 412 in a 30--27 overtime victory over Wake Forest last Saturday.
Much of the Yellow Jackets' success has coincided with the development of junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt, who ran a shotgun offense at Greene County (Ga.) High. (Asked if he would have gone to Georgia Tech if he'd known that he was going to be an option quarterback, he says, "Probably not.") The 6'1", 217-pound Nesbitt, on pace for 1,500 yards passing and 1,000 rushing, now looks as though he has been running the option all his life. B back Jonathan Dwyer, a robust 6-foot 235-pounder who was the ACC player of the year in 2008, is on pace for 1,200 rushing yards. The 6-foot, 231-pound Allen, one of the A backs, averages more than a first down per carry—10.9 yards.
And to all you athletic directors out there with floundering football programs, these guys are anything but boring. As they lull teams with dive plays up the middle, the Yellow Jackets are capable of the big play on any snap—either on the ground or through the air. Georgia Tech may throw the ball only 11.7 times per game, but it averages 23.7 yards per completion. While Nesbitt is only a 45.2% passer, junior wideout Demaryius Thomas, a big target at 6'3", 229 pounds, leads the ACC in receiving yards per game (86.1) and ranks 24th nationally. In the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt, Johnson noticed that the strong safety was overcommitting to the run. So on the next play he sent A back Embry Peeples deep, and Nesbitt hit him for an 87-yard touchdown. "There's a misnomer that it's three yards and a cloud of dust," says Johnson. "But we have more plays of 50 yards than anyone else in the league."
In fact, Georgia Tech has had eight such plays, the latest a 59-yard Dwyer TD run against Wake Forest. What should be frightening for other ACC programs is that Johnson's offense is already a well-oiled machine with athletes who were recruited to play in Gailey's system. Yellow Jackets fans can't wait to see what the offense will be like when Johnson has a roster filled with his own players.
"There's that notion that you can't get the best players, but you could argue that a school like Georgia Tech has a huge recruiting edge," says Osborne. "There are always a few quarterbacks who are made for an option offense, great athletes whom other schools want to convert to another position, but now they don't have to convert if they want to play for a BCS school."
Johnson, ever the innovator, hasn't ruled out a day when the Yellow Jackets might air it out 30 times a game. "If we feel we need to make an adjustment, we will," he says. Of course, it has been 24 years since he went to the option, and his throwback attack has never looked better. "This has been working for us," he says, "so why change?"
Maybe the Georgia Tech run-first philosophy is catching on. In the 52 games played last week between Division I-A programs, no fewer than nine teams rushed for at least 300 yards, and two others (Arizona and Wisconsin, with 294 each) were on the brink. Oh, and all 11 walked away winners.