Oct. 30, 2013
By Jon Cooper
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Consider Navy’s use of the spread option. It’s carryover by Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo from when he was Paul Johnson’s offensive coordinator from 2002 through 2007.
Last week, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech’s opponent Saturday, played Navy. They led the majority of the game and with less than four minutes to play but couldn’t hold on, allowing two late scores in a 24-21 loss.
This week, the Panthers go from the student to the master. Is it an advantage seeing the same offense two weeks in a row?
“I would have rather them not played Navy,” said Georgia Tech Head Coach Paul Johnson in his weekly press conference. “It probably benefits them a little more to get the speed of the offense. That had to be a disappointing loss for them. They pretty much controlled the whole game. It was a hard fought, physical game. It’ll give them a chance to see what they liked about it and what they didn’t; what they want to add and what they throw out.”
How much of an advantage is there? Maybe not as much as one might think.
Consider an example from another sport. Major League hitters saw plenty of relievers throw the split-finger fastball prior to facing the New York Yankees and their closer Mariano Rivera. It’s the only pitch Rivera threw in his 19-year career. Easy to prepare for, right?
Now consider how well opponents took advantage.
Johnson expects a test on Saturday night.
Pittsburgh comes into Grant Field on Saturday night with the fourth-best rushing defense in ACC games, 127.5 ypg, (they’re seventh overall at 148.0 ypg). They held Navy to 220 yards, 70 below their per-game average and are talented up front.
“[Defensive Tackle Aaron] Donald is the three technique,” said Johnson. “He plays on the inside tackle and he’s probably an All-American. I’d say he’s as good as anybody we’ve played all year. The other player who has really impressed me is their middle linebacker [Shane Gordon].”
There’s another reason Johnson isn’t putting much stock in the “who do they remind you of?” game when it comes to preparing for the Panthers, who are 2-2 in the Coastal Division. That’s because of the team they remind him of.
“Syracuse maybe. They are probably closer to Pitt than anyone else we’ve played,” he said. “But even then they are different. Pitt mixes a power running game with a pro-style passing attack is how I would categorize it.”
Telling his team that Pittsburgh reminds him of Syracuse could be dangerous as far as subconsciously planting seeds of over-confidence.
But there is good reason the Jackets to be confident.
Over the last two weeks, they have become the kind of offensive machine that Johnson likes. They have ground out identical totals of 394 yards and have rushed a combined 119 times, while putting the ball in the air 14 times.
That’s the kind of ratio Johnson can live with.
“If we are running the ball for 400 yards, we are probably not going to throw it as much. If we are running it for 200 yards then we are probably going to have to throw it more,” he said. “If you look, the three games that we have thrown the ball over 20 times, I think we have lost all three of them.”
He’s close enough, as Tech threw 19 times in the loss at Miami and was over 20 in losses to Virginia Tech and at Brigham Young.
“It’s like anything else. You are going to do what’s working,” he said. “Truthfully, the last two weeks, the both secondary’s have really never been involved that much in stopping the run game for whatever reason, whether they just didn’t want to get involved. We were successful. We averaged about six or seven yards a rush. There wasn’t any use to say well we are going to throw it.”
Of course, just because Tech didn’t choose to throw didn’t mean they couldn’t. The Jackets hurt Virginia with big pass plays, as B-Back Zach Laskey and A-Back Robert Godhigh each had pass plays for over 30 yards and Tech backs accounted for eight of the nine big plays against UVA.
“When [Virginia] packed everybody up there to stop the run, we saw what happens when the secondary gets involved and the corner runs across the line,” Johnson said. “We were able to hit the A-back on play action and do some of that.”
Johnson expects that Pittsburgh will see that when breaking down film. Something they won’t see when looking at Navy is Tech’s inspired offensive line play, which has personified resilience in the face of injuries and multiple personnel. Then there is the defense, which, led by ends Jeremiah Attaochu and Emmanuel Dieke, and DB Jemea Thomas, which is much more formidable than anything they’ve seen.
“The bottom line is the points. It’s all about how many points you give up,” said Johnson. “Considering that we turned the ball over five times and gave them all sorts of chances with penalties, we were pleased that we only gave up as many points as we did.”
And don’t expect the charitable five turnovers and nine penalties the Jackets had at Virginia.
Combine that with the fervor of the night-time homecoming crowd, and it looks like a recipe for Tech success. A movie Pittsburgh just saw.
“We overcame some adversity with some self-inflicted wounds such as penalties and turnovers,” said Johnson. “We found a way to make enough plays to win the game. That’s what it’s all about. We’re looking forward to getting better this week and having a chance to become bowl eligible on Saturday night.”
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