Pitt works to prepare for Georgia Tech’s signature option offense
The option offense Pitt must find a way to stop Saturday took root in the hills of western North Carolina in the 1970s, when Paul Johnson was a football player at Avery County High School in the small town of Newland (population 684).
A decade later, when Johnson was coaching defense at Georgia Southern, offensive coordinator Ben Griffith visited the Houston Gamblers of the old USFL, where Mouse Davis was running something called a run-and-shoot.
Griffith liked it, brought it back home but decided to sprinkle some option wrinkles into the mix to give it a better running element.
Georgia Southern had virtually no budget for football and used to run stripes of athletic tape on its helmets just to jazz them up. But when Johnson replaced Griffith in 1985, he massaged Davis’ creation and used it to carry Georgia Southern to two FCS national championships.
Just like a member of Johnson’s family, the offense has come along with him to each of his coaching jobs — Hawaii, Navy, back to Georgia Southern, back to Navy and finally to Georgia Tech. Now, as the 11-year coach of the Ramblin’ Wreck, he’ll bring the offense to Heinz Field on Saturday to help kick off Pitt’s ACC schedule.
Pitt linebackers coach Rob Harley knows what to expect.
“If they run 70 plays, they’re running the ball 60 of them,” he said.
The offense generally is known as the triple option, but if you call it that in Johnson’s company, he might correct you. Officially, it’s the Flexbone Spread Option.
“The triple option is one play,” he said on a YouTube video where he discusses the evolution of his offense. “We run it maybe 20 percent of the time or 15. Depending on the game, sometimes less than that.
“It would be like calling the I-formation the ‘sprint draw’ offense.”
By any name, Pitt senior linebacker Elijah Zeise has seen enough of it.
“In high school (at North Allegheny), we played Butler, who also ran it a lot,” he said. “I’ve seen it pretty much every year I played football.
“Definitely getting annoying, but it’s what you have to do. Georgia Tech is the team we have to beat if we want to get our goal: the ACC championship.”
For all the criticism Pitt’s defense has endured under coach Pat Narduzzi the past three seasons, he is 2-1 against Georgia Tech, two years ago holding it to 241 rushing yards — 17 short of its average for that season. In those three years, Georgia Tech has run for nearly 10,000 yards while finishing in the top 10 in the nation each year.
It forces a significant shift in approach during practice, so Narduzzi and his staff never stop thinking about it.
“I think we have a good feel for how they want to attack,” Harley said. “But this is what they do. This is what they live in, year-in, year-out. They know all the (defensive) looks. There are not going to be many surprises.
“We’re aware of how they might try to attack, and we can have better guesses now that we’ve gone through it for three years.”
Said Zeise: “We spend so much time working on Georgia Tech during the offseason. It’s not like we have to switch gears that much. At this point, it’s kind of second-nature, refining stuff.”
Pitt’s defensive coaches preach the same sermon every year during Georgia Tech week: stay in your gaps, don’t try to do your buddy’s job and avoid the cut blocks.
“There is very limited overlap going against this offense,” Harley said. “You have to be so good in doing your job one-on-one.”
Harley said the key is understanding leverage, formations and motion and being disciplined with your eyes.
“You have to be really good at getting your feet where they need to be with great leverage, getting your hands on people and not looking over a guy because that’s when you end up on the ground and get cut.”
Georgia Tech’s blockers have become expert at the low, chop block, which is outlawed 5 yards downfield but a nasty weapon around the line of scrimmage.
“They’re going to do what they need to do. This is a grown man’s game this week,” Harley said, likely repeating what he has told his linebackers. “They are going to try and make it a grown man’s game, and we have to match their intensity.”
Although Pitt expects to be prepared, it has not defeated Georgia Tech under Narduzzi without scoring in the 30s: 31-28 in 2015 and 37-34 in ‘16. The one defeat was last year when, Georgia Tech ran for 436 yards and won 35-17 in Atlanta.
“If you miss against this offense, it’s a big play,” Harley said.
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Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.