When the Georgia Tech offense takes to Detroit’s Ford Field on Wednesday to face the Gophers in the Quick Lane Bowl, don’t be confused. It only seems as if you’ve been transported back to the days of padded neck collars and tearaway jerseys.
The Yellow Jackets are one of a handful of college football teams that use a triple-option offense, which has roots in the wishbone attack popular in the 1970s and ’80s. The run-heavy approach features quarterback sweeps, pitches to a trio of running backs, motion and misdirection. Because it’s so rare these days — Army, Navy and Georgia Southern are a few of the other FBS teams that use it — opposing defenses must start from scratch in game-planning for it.
“It’s very different,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “When you play a more traditional style of offense, that’s what your defense is made to stop. … When you get a triple-option team, everything changes.”
In Georgia Tech (7-5), the Gophers (6-6) will face an opponent that’s adept at running the triple option. Coach Paul Johnson brought the offense to Atlanta in 2008 after running it at Navy, and the Yellow Jackets have led FBS teams in rushing three times — 2010, ’14 and this year. The Yellow Jackets are averaging 334.9 yards per game this season, and they run the ball an average of 58.4 times per game.
The man who must devise a way of slowing Georgia Tech is Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi. He took over for fired Robb Smith and helped Minnesota slash its total yards allowed in Big Ten play from an average of 507.7 in the first six games to 305.7 in its final three. Rossi knows the challenge the Yellow Jackets present.
“They’re good. They’ve been doing it for a long time. The head guy’s been doing it for a very long time,” Rossi said of Johnson, 61, who is retiring after the bowl game, with Temple’s Geoff Collins taking over. “It’s unique. Any time something is unique, it presents a challenge because you’re not familiar with it as a player.”
The success of Georgia Tech’s triple option starts with quarterback play, and senior TaQuon Marshall and redshirt freshman Tobias Oliver have been productive. Marshall leads the team with 896 rushing yards on 194 carries and has scored 11 touchdowns, while Oliver has carried 143 times for 807 yards and a team-high 12 TDs. Running backs Jordan Mason (640 yards) and Jerry Howard (561) add punch, while Qua Searcy is averaging 10.5 yards on his 33 carries.
Georgia Tech’s heavy use of the run game can lull a defense to sleep, too. Though the Yellow Jackets don’t pass often — only 114 times this season — they are averaging 19.8 yards per completion.
Discipline, Rossi said, is important against the triple option.
“You can’t worry about somebody else’s job, you’ve got to worry about your job,” he said. “The second you start looking to do someone else’s job, that’s when you give up a play.”
Rossi has faced a triple-option teams four times in his career.
“The first time was at the University of Maine in the [FCS] playoffs vs. Georgia Southern on a short week. Don’t like that,” he said. “The other three times was when I was at Rutgers, and we played Army twice and Navy once. It’s a little different when you know when it’s coming. We knew it was on the schedule, which is similar to a bowl game.”
Gophers defensive end Carter Coughlin, one of the better pass rushers in the Big Ten, considers facing the Yellow Jackets offense a welcome challenge.
“Having so much time to prepare for the bowl game, if we were doing the same thing every day in practice like we have for the entire season, it could potentially get a little dry,” he said. “This is completely different. I really enjoy this. My role is completely different than what it usually is, so it’s been fun.”
Added Fleck, “As coaches, you love challenges.”
On Wednesday, they will have one.