CLEMSON — Each of the previous four years, Clemson’s season-worst rushing defensive effort came against Georgia Tech.
In other news, water is wet, death and taxes are certain, and the sun will come up tomorrow.
WHO: Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2 ACC) at No. 9 Clemson (8-1, 6-1)
WHEN: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
Line: Clemson by 10.5
The Yellow Jackets are synonymous with pounding the football with their triple option flexbone offense. They have rushed for more yards than any other Division I program since 2008, to an extent because Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2 ACC) has attempted 3,579 rushes and thrown 827 passes (running 81.2 percent of the time) during that span.
But volume is only part of the equation. They’re really, really good at it, too: Georgia Tech’s 5.5 yards per carry this season ranks 14th in the country, which is actually its worst relative rating since head coach Paul Johnson’s first season in 2007 coming down from Navy, where he helped revolutionize the Midshipmen’s offense.
Georgia Tech’s rushing yardage against Clemson the past five matchups, which includes three Jackets victories: 301, 333, 242, 383, 339.
“They’re basically going to do what they do,” junior defensive end Corey Crawford said. “Other teams haven’t really been able to stop it, so they feel like they can do what they do.”
The No. 8 Tigers (8-1, 6-1) won’t have to guess how Tech will gameplan. The trick is stopping it.
“It’s just doing your job over and over and over and over and over,” senior linebacker Quandon Christian said. “That’s what makes it difficult. When someone’s running right at you, you can tackle him. But when you have to let the other guy tackle him, you have to play your position.”
What Christian’s referring to is the crux of the triple option. If quarterback Vad Lee takes off around left or right tackle, he’s got three decisions to choose from: tuck the ball and race upfield, hand off to B-Back David Sims or Zach Laskey on a counter, or pitch to A-Back Robert Godhigh (11.3 yards per rush) or Synjyn Days.
“It’s a lot of reading, being disciplined and doing your assignment, not trying to do so much,” Crawford said. “I feel like it’s going to be something that really defines if we’re a truly disciplined defense or not.”
It’s a vanilla playbook by nature — run here, run there, run back here, run, run, run.
“That’s their game,” junior linebacker Stephone Anthony said. “They try to lure you to sleep and try to pop one in over you.”
That’s where the Clemson secondary comes in; trying to do something about the Yellow Jackets’ 18.2 yards per completion, which trails only high-flying Baylor nationally.
“We have to be real physical. We know it’s going to be almost like Boston College, a real physical game. But then you’ve got to be able to match your aggression,” junior safety Robert Smith said. “You can’t be too aggressive and get lured down, and then get the deep ball thrown over your head. You’ve got to be smart too.”
Two years ago, Clemson was 8-0 and ranked sixth in the country before a trip to Atlanta ended the dream. Georgia Tech rushed 67 times for 383 yards and four touchdowns, winning 31-17 to end the Tigers’ unbeaten season.
“Not a very focused football team,” Anthony recalled. “We went down there living on the highs, and we got a reality check.”
Fortunately for Clemson, it will get 12 days to prepare not only for Georgia Tech, but its next opponent as well; The Citadel runs a similar playbook.
“Our schedule this year was set up pretty nicely,” Crawford said. “With both of the triple-option teams, we kind of have the same mindset that we know what we’re going to get.”
Clemson has held six of its nine opponents to fewer than 3.3 yards per carry. Something’s got to give Thursday night.
“I feel like we have that confidence because we know what’s coming,” Crawford said. “The only thing we have to be ready for is them coming for us, cutting our legs and stuff like that, trying to take us out of the play as early as possible. We’re confident enough that we’ll get the job done.”