CLEMSON – The way Dabo Swinney sees it, Paul Johnson has been coaching option football for every bit of his 58 years.
“He came out of the womb coaching option football,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
That may be debatable, but this much is certain – Johnson’s teams have amassed several lifetimes’ worth of rushing yardage during his tenures.
In seven-plus seasons as head coach at Georgia Tech, Johnson’s Yellow Jackets have rushed for 30,601 yards, or roughly 17.4 miles.
Much of that yardage has come at the expense of Clemson, and in untimely fashion.
Last season the Yellow Jackets rushed for 251 yards in a 28-6 victory that snapped Clemson’s six-game winning streak.
In 2011, Tech rambled for 383 yards on the ground to spoil the Tigers’ 8-0 start with a 31-17 win.
To provide more perspective, consider this: Since 2008, only three teams other than Georgia Tech (Maryland in 2011, Syracuse in 2013 and Georgia in 2014) have managed more than 288 yards rushing in single games against Clemson. Georgia Tech has averaged 288 yards rushing in eight games against the Tigers during that same time span.
Now it’s a new season, but the same old problem.
Clemson may be 4-0 and ranked sixth nationally and the Yellow Jackets – the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division title – may be 2-3 and unranked, but Swinney isn’t buying into a total Tech collapse.
He’s seen too much of the Yellow Jackets and learned too much to be tricked into a comfort zone.
The Yellow Jackets have lost three in a row, but the defeats have come at Notre Dame and against Duke and North Carolina, two teams that are 4-1 and tied atop the Coastal Division standings.
“They’ve played good people,” Swinney said. “Georgia Tech is still really really good. Their record has nothing to do with it.
“You hold your breath when you play these guys. They’re always a difficult team to play. You’ve got to be very disciplined with alignments and assignments, and you’d better be ready to play four downs. They don’t punt a whole lot.”
Indeed, Georgia Tech has converted 9-of-16 fourth-down attempts this season; no other ACC team has rolled the dice more than 10 times on fourth down.
Tech once again relies heavily on the run and ranks sixth nationally this season with an average of 311 yards per game, but junior quarterback Justin Thomas – a 1,000-yard rusher last season – provides another layer of versatility. He has thrown a touchdown pass in nine consecutive games, which underscores the Yellow Jackets’ potential for explosive plays.
Tech is tied for fifth nationally in red zone touchdown percentage and is averaging an ACC-best 41.4 points per game.
“They stretch the field,” Swinney said. “Twelve of their 27 touchdowns have been scored in two minutes or less; that’s explosiveness.
“You’ve got to be incredibly disciplined. This guy (Johnson), he’s got answers. And throughout the course of the game, you’d better have some change-ups. Because if you’ve got one pitch, he’s gonna hit it. I don’t care how fast you’re bringing it in there, he’s gonna hit it. You’d better come with the Greg Maddux plan; you’d better have multiple pitches, because they’re so well coached and have such a great understanding of what they do.”
Clemson has answers, too, however. Quarterback Deshaun Watson, who suffered a knee injury at Georgia Tech last season and missed two of the Tigers’ final three games, is off to a solid start, leading the ACC with nine touchdown passes and ranking second in passing efficiency. He’s also rushed for 186 yards – just 28 less than Thomas – and is coming off a career-high 93 yards rushing against Notre Dame.
And it’s not like Clemson’s run defense is chopped liver, despite the loss of eight defensive starters off last year’s top-ranked unit. The Tigers are allowing just 115 yards rushing per game, which ranks fifth-best in the ACC.
“Clemson is always going to be very athletic,” Johnson said. “Dabo has got them playing at a very high level the last three, four, five years, and it’s always a tough game, and there’s a lot of familiarity. Our people know that it’s always going to be a physical, tough game.
“We’ve got a lot of guys hurt, just like everybody else does. We’re on our sixth or seventh A-back. We have guys playing who probably when we started we didn’t think were going to be on the travel squad. We put ourselves here. Nobody is riding in to save us, so we’ve got to save ourselves.”
Tech will be attempting to avoid the program’s first four-game losing streak since 1996 in what will be Johnson’s 100th game as the Yellow Jackets’ head coach, which provides yet more reason for Swinney to be wary.
“They kicked our butt last year – it was just that simple,” Swinney said. “And if we have a letdown, we’re going to get our butts kicked again.”