ATHENS, Ga. — For 30 minutes last season, Georgia thought it had discovered the keys to beating Georgia Tech’s triple option. And then it all fell apart.
Tech outscored Georgia 26-0 in the third quarter en route to a 45-42 upset in Athens, and the Bulldogs have spent much of the past year wondering how it happened.
The upside, however, is that the failures of a year ago have taught some valuable lessons, giving Georgia a blueprint for how it hopes to slow the Yellow Jackets in their rematch Saturday.
Reading the play
It’s not that the option offense is complex. In fact, it’s pretty simple. But if Georgia defenders aren’t keeping a close eye on what’s happening before the snap, stopping Josh Nesbitt, Jonathan Dwyer and their teammates can become really difficult, really fast.
“With Tech, they line up in one thing and they run it to the right or the left,” linebacker Darryl Gamble said. “It’s about having guys that are more disciplined. It only takes one person to mess up for it to go 80.”
To know the assignment, however, it’s incumbent upon each defender to be aware of the situation and that comes with making the right reads before the play even begins.
“You’re looking at, of course Dwyer, at their A backs, at the linemen keys — which way they’re having their movements to — you’re looking at field position, down and distance, all those things come into effect,” linebacker Rennie Curran said.
Making the right read can tip off which direction the play will go and who the ball carrier might be, giving the defense a leg up even against a team like Tech that kills defenses through misdirection.
Handling the blocks
Once the ball is snapped, the defense runs into another set of problems.
Rather than facing typical blocking schemes where the primary objective is to get past the blocker and head for the ball, Tech preys on the aggressiveness of its opponent by using cut-blocking schemes, taking defenders legs out from under them and keeping them on the ground.
“Against this team, penetration will kill you,” defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. “You don’t want to be on the ground for anything. It’s about having a balanced stance, working hard to defeat a chop block and make a play. It’s a different approach, technically, from any other team.”
The key to defeating the cut block is for the defender to keep his feet back and stay patient while maintaining a killer instinct. It’s a delicate balance, but it’s one Georgia works on at various times throughout the season — long before Tech week, defensive line coach Rodney Garner said.
“We can’t get so consumed with that that you’re not attacking, you’re not getting off the ball, you’re sitting there waiting and playing cautious,” Garner said. “That’s what you don’t want to do. You want to go out there and play your game.”
The problem with Tech’s option is that, just when Georgia’s defense thinks it has its man, the ball is pitched and the play shifts in another direction altogether.
For that reason, the buzzword for the week has been assignment football. Against most teams, Georgia preaches a fly-to-the-ball mentality. Against Tech, it’s all about maintaining assignments and staying in position. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s essential in stopping the option.
“It’s not that difficult from a standpoint of what you have to accomplish, but what they do, they stress you out,” defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. “You feel like you’ve got a beat on a certain play, and then it’s a misdirection.”
Making the stop
Ask Georgia’s defenders where last year’s game was lost, and missed tackles will top their list.
Dwyer and Roddy Jones combined for 358 yards rushing against Georgia, and the bulk of that came on long runs when Georgia’s defenders were out of position and failed to take down a ball carrier with fundamental tackling.
“In the second half, we missed tackles,” Martinez said. “We gave up a lot of big plays. We can’t do that. You’ve got to make them work for it. That’s the biggest key for us.”
Last season, Tech threw just six passes in the game, completing only one. This year, however, Nesbitt and receiver Demaryius Thomas have developed into one of the best big-play combinations in the country, meaning the pressure on the cornerbacks will be even bigger.
“We know they’re going to run the ball — that’s what they do,” cornerback Brandon Boykin said.
“But we have to be aware of the passing game because they’re going to run that ball and then try to sneak a pass in on us. We’ve got to be able to read our keys, and our eyes have to be real big in this game.”
Keeping it going
If any lesson was learned a year ago, it’s this: Stopping Georgia Tech for doesn’t come down to making a few plays or even a majority of the plays. It’s about making every play and never backing down.
“Going into the game, we thought we had a good grasp on it, and if you look at the start of the game, we were doing fine,” Curran said.
“But once guys started to relax and weren’t wrapping up or a guy forgets the pitch or forgets the dive, that’s when they get those big yardage gains off of your mistakes.”
After spending a majority of the game facing chop blocks and frustrating misdirection, keeping a strong mind-set might be the toughest obstacle of all.
“It’s just going to be the same play, same play, and they’re just going to look for you to make a mistake,” Dobbs said.
“The minute you make a mistake is when it busts out for 60 yards. You just have to play sound football for 60 minutes.”
That’s where Georgia made a mistake a year ago, and this time around, there’s even less margin for error. But last year’s lessons haven’t been forgotten, and no one is planning on taking a play off this year. The risks are too great.
“It’s been the emphasis all year,” Dobbs said. “We’ve looked to this game and tried to prepare for it mentally. We know we had a lot of scrutiny come down on us last year after we lost to Tech, and the only way to redeem ourselves is after this win.”