Two weeks after the win over N.C. State ended with what will forever be known as 'Gio's return,' Carolina returns to Kenan Stadium to take on Paul Johnson and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Incidentally, this will be the third time in the last five years that the Tar Heels take on Georgia Tech following a bye, but UNC has mustered just one win against Johnson.
Teams like to have that extra week to prepare for Georgia Tech and their spread option offense, unique to the Jackets in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Georgia Tech uses movement up front and multiple options out of the backfield to move the ball on the ground. Many college football observers call Johnson's scheme the 'triple option' offense, but Georgia Tech's game notes will tell you that the triple option is but one play in the spread option, and the Jackets run the triple option only about 20 percent of the time. Still, it's something that defenses have to prepare for.
Johnson's triple option involves the quarterback, a B-back directly behind, and two A-backs just off the line of scrimmage beyond the tackles. Upon the snap, quarterback Tevin Washington has the option of handing to the B-back, keeping the ball himself, or pitching to one of the two A-backs. Three options, each of which can turn into big plays. "For a defense, you have to be prepared for the dive, the quarterback, and the pitch," Larry Fedora said Tuesday. "That's three options, so you've got to be prepared for it on each and every play. They may not be running a lot of full, triple option plays. It may be more double option, may be a dive with the quarerback, but they mix it up, and you've got to be prepared, every single play, for all three."
In the week before playing Georgia Tech, defenses always talk about 'assignment football.' That is, staying responsible for your own assignment and being wary of taking chances lest they go for big plays. Each team has 11 players on the field, so it ought to be easy: win your one-on-one battle, and the game will take care of itself. But Georgia Tech's blocking schemes make it more complicated than that. "They will get somebody from one side to the other faster than you can," Carolina associate head coach Vic Koenning said. "Somebody's got to get off a block, somebody's got to be the block, and then you've got to run like the dickens to get there."
Carolina defensive end Kareem Martin said it's tough to stay home on defense, particularly when the play in front of you looks like the right one. If you guess wrong, if you leave the B-back to tackle Washington, who pitches at the last second, or if you anticipate a pitch that doesn't come, you open a hole for a big gain. "I may have the quarterback, but I see the fullback, and I want to take him, but I have the quarterback," Martin said. "You have to be really unselfish. I think the teams that have beaten them in the past weren't being selfish. You can't worry about your stats this week, you have to worry about the defense as a whole."
Defenders want to make big plays, and Carolina's defense is one of the conference's best in that regard. The Tar Heels lead the ACC with 13 interceptions and are third with 23 sacks. It may be frustrating to stay within yourself, but it's the right thing to do. If the Jackets don't seem to be using one of their options, ignore it at your own peril. "They have their offensive coordinator in the press box, and he's watching our tendencies," Martin said. "That one time he sees that your'e not going to take the dive, that next play, they're giving the ball to the dive, and he's going to hit you for 15 or 20 yards." Martin said Georgia Tech does a good job of in-game scouting, mirroring what the defense is showing them, then hitting for big gains.
Cornerback Jabari Price has a knack for making big plays, but he knows he has to stay within himself this week. "We have to go into this game trusting the guy next to me, and trusting myself that I'm going to do my job, and my job only," he said. "In order to make plays, you've got to take chances here and there, but this week, Coach Fedora and the staff are stressing assignment football."
Georgia Tech likes to eat up clock and wear down defenses - a year ago in Atlanta, they possessed the ball more than 12 minutes longer than the Tar Heels - so the Tar Heel offense will have to hold on to the football to give the defense a breather. "We've got to move the chains," Fedora said of his offense. "We have to play flawless. We can't have any pre or post-snap penalties and we've got to take care of the football. We can't give them extra possessions."
"One of the things they try to do is sustain long drives, and really eat up clock, and then score and score again," left guard Jonathan Cooper said. "If we can keep the ball out of their hands, it'll really help us on both sides of the ball."
In four of their last five games, the Tar Heels have scored 30 points or more. If the Carolina can give themselves some breathing room, they'll have a chance to be successful on Saturday. Defensively, it will come down to winning battles. "Our guys are going to have to be better than their guys," Koenning said. "It's going to boil down to that." Sounds simple enough.
Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
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