Paul Johnson entered his first season at the BCS level with an enormous amount of skepticism regarding his unique rushing attack that features the triple option. The scheme worked brilliantly at Navy, where the talent level doesn't equate to the national powerhouses, but how would that offense fair against elite competition on a weekly basis. So far, so good.
The Yellow Jackets have compiled a 7-2 (4-2 ACC) record three-fourths of the way through the season, and Johnson is inching closer to the possibility of leading Georgia Tech back to the ACC Championship Game in his first season in Atlanta. And those critics of his offensive system have practically vanished, due to the Yellow Jackets leading the ACC with 242.3 rushing yards per game.
"There's an excitement. I think practices are more competitive right now. We're playing really well. We have a legitimate chance of achieving some of the goals that we set out to do. And I think we're really focused to do that." – UNC quarterback Cam Sexton
"It's a very critical and important time. These next four ball games are obviously very, very significant." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
"Everybody, when the season started, wrote us off. They said we were going to win three games, four games, and then when we started off so good, everybody jumped on the bandwagon. Then when we lost last week, they couldn't get off fast enough. I don't know if we'll win another game, but I do know this: We've won seven, and that's more than anybody thought we'd win, so I'm proud of them." – Johnson
Yellow Jacket Spotlight
Standing 6-foot, 228 pounds, Jonathan Dwyer may not seem like your typical explosive college running back. But working out of Paul Johnson's dynamic rushing attack as the B-back, the Marietta, Ga. sophomore has arguably become the ACC's top rusher as a fullback/tailback at Georgia Tech.
Dwyer (899 yards on the season) leads the ACC in yards per carry (6.5) and ranks second in yards per game (99.9), just behind Maryland's Da'Rel Scott (102.6). He carried the Yellow Jackets to victory last Saturday over Florida State, rushing 13 times for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
"Certainly, he's a big part of the offense," Johnson said. "Jon's a very gifted athlete. I think he's a very good player. And obviously, if he's having a good day and getting yards and moving the ball, then the offense is. He's an integral part of what we do."
In traditional wishbone, triple option sets, the B-back is the dive option, meaning Dwyer hits the center of the defense essentially every down. That line of work is best known for two and three yard gains, but the sophomore has proven to be a home run threat against the strength of opposing defenses.
He's already posted an 88-yard touchdown run against Mississippi State, a 43-yard scoring scamper against Boston College and against Florida State, he put the Yellow Jackets up 11 points with a 66-yard score to open the second half. And you may as well add in his 79-yard touchdown reception against Gardner Webb for good measure.
"Everybody in here who pays attention knows that Jon is one of the best running backs in the country," quarterback Calvin Booker told the Macon Telegraph two weeks ago. "And with space, he really makes things happen."
With quarterback Josh Nesbitt hobbled with a sprained right ankle and starting offensive tackle Andrew Gardner out for the season (shoulder surgery), Dwyer's role for this team has become even more important, because his success is directly related to that of the Yellow Jackets.
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Run Defense vs. GT's Ground Game
There has been plenty of attention devoted to Georgia Tech's ground game this season, and for good reason – 242.3 rushing yards will earn you the media spotlight. But it's worth noting that the true old-school wishbone, option attacks went out of style two decades ago due to an opposing defense's ability to make the offense one-dimensional. Control the ground game, and those offenses would struggle to put points on the board.
Johnson has figured out a way to counteract that problem – dual threat quarterback Josh Nesbitt (74 yards per game through the air, 62.3 on the ground).
"Georgia Tech is more dangerous than a traditional wishbone team because a traditional wishbone team historically always had a tight end and three backs in the backfield and maybe one wide receiver," Davis said. "With what Georgia Tech's doing, they have two wide receivers and they have two guys in the slot that are in a dangerous position to get out for passes… They're going to require your secondary to be a big, significant part of the run defense. You're always very susceptible to the play-action pass."
The Yellow Jackets may rank dead-last in the ACC in passing yards (108.7 ypg), but they rank first in yards per attempt (9.4), as well as holding the No. 2 spot in passing efficiency (136.2).
North Carolina has been solid all season long in passing efficiency defense (109.9 ranks 29th nationally) and the run defense has improved dramatically in recent weeks, allowing its last three opponents just 187 rushing yards on a 2.4 yards per carry average. Focusing on the run while refusing to give up the big passing play will be key on Saturday.
"It takes the whole team being on the same page, everyone being disciplined and reading their keys because if you don't, it's a 60-yard play," safety Trimane Goddard said.
UNC's Offensive Line vs. GT's Defensive Line
When Johnson hired Dave Wommack to take over the defensive coordinator position last winter, it appeared as though the transition to a new scheme would be difficult, given that the Yellow Jackets were faced with replacing eight starters on that side of the ball.
But then again, no one expected the defensive line to battle each other for All-America honors this season, either. Sophomore DE Derrick Morgan joins senior veterans DT Vance Walker, DT Darryl Richard and DE Michael Johnson to form arguably the nation's best front four, as each member of the unit ranks in the ACC's top-10 in tackles for loss.
The group collectively totaled 4.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery during last weekend's victory over Florida State. For their careers, they have combined for 160 games played, 85 starts, 332 tackles, 92.0 tackles for loss, 46.0 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries and four blocked kicks.
"Their defensive line is very aggressive," Davis said. "It's a different scheme since they changed coordinators from last year, they are not into fire zone blitzes that you saw so much different last year. They're structured in a 4-3, but they'll still blitz you."
That level of success has catapulted the Yellow Jackets up the food chain, as they lead the nation in tackles-for-loss (8.89 pg) and lead the ACC in sacks (26) and scoring defense (14.8 ppg).
In order for Cam Sexton and the offense to sustain drives and keep the time of possession battle balanced, the offensive line will have to continue to show improvement both in pass protection and in the running game. The Tar Heels are currently allowing two sacks (69th nationally) and 4.75 tackles for loss (26th) per outing. Moves along the offensive front, such as promoting Lowell Dyer to the starting center spot and Alan Pelc to left guard, have allowed for advancements in the running game (125.6 ypg).
* North Carolina and Georgia Tech are meeting for the 44th time with the Yellow Jackets holding a 23-17-3 lead in the series.
* UNC has won just once in the last 10 meetings – a 34-13 victory in 2004 in Chapel Hill. But the Tar Heels hold a 10-8-2 advantage in games played at Kenan Stadium.