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Johnson’s triple option presents challenge to ND

| Thursday, September 17, 2015

The most prolific offense in the country.

That’s how Irish head coach Brian Kelly described Georgia Tech in Wednesday’s ACC teleconference, and the numbers certainly back him up on that point. Through two games, the No. 14 Yellow Jackets have amassed 134 points and 915 rushing yards on 8.5 yards per attempt. All of those statistics rank among the top two in the NCAA.

Granted, those games came against Alcorn State and Tulane, but Kelly’s respect for Georgia Tech runs deeper than just this season.

Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson’s patented triple-option offense has been giving Notre Dame trouble for more than a decade now, going back to his time at Navy from 2002 to 2007.

Under his guidance, the Midshipmen defeated the Irish for the first time in 44 years in 2007, and Navy continues to use that style of offense even after he departed for Georgia Tech. In the past two seasons, Navy has played Kelly and Notre Dame close and racked up more than 330 yards rushing each time.

Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets have flourished under Johnson’s system, advancing to the Orange Bowl twice in six years and ending last season ranked eighth in the final AP poll.

They picked up in 2015 right where they left off, exploding out of the gate with two quick blowouts. Redshirt junior quarterback Justin Thomas has collected two touchdowns with his feet, while the Yellow Jackets’ top eight rushers average more than 30 yards per game. All but one of them has reached the end zone.

“Coach Johnson has done an incredible job everywhere he’s been,” Kelly said. “This year with Justin Thomas at quarterback and great depth at the running back position … it’s going to be a great challenge.”

Senior Patrick Skov and freshman Marcus Marshall have run wild thus far, with Skov scoring four touchdowns and Marshall averaging more than 15 yards per attempt. But under Johnson, the focus is less on individual runners and more on the system as a whole.

Besides Thomas, none of Georgia Tech’s top seven rushers from 2014 returned this season. Skov transferred from Stanford. Marshall is a true freshman. Thomas led the Yellow Jackets in rushing yards last year but currently ranks fifth on the team.

Georgia Tech’s brutal efficiency has impressed Kelly, but Johnson shied away from agreeing with the Notre Dame coach’s assessment Wednesday.

“We’ll see as the season plays out. I think we’ve played against two opponents that have been overmatched,” Johnson said when told about Kelly’s comments during his teleconference. “I don’t know about the most prolific offense, but if we execute, I feel confident that we can move the ball.”

In order to defend such a prolific scheme, Notre Dame needs to counter with a highly organized system of its own, Kelly said.

“First and foremost, when you settle on what your plan is and how you’re going to defend the triple option, I think it goes to guys that have a good sense and a feel for what the plan is and how to defend triple option,” Kelly said Tuesday. “So I think they’ve got to have a discipline about themselves. They’ve got to be guys that clearly understand the job in front of them and recognize what’s being asked of them.

“So I think there’s got to be some discipline. There’s got to be clearly some athleticism there as well, but by and large, they’ve got to be able to pick up the schemes that we’re trying to put together. So those are really important elements in this. If you’re lost out there, you could be the greatest athlete in the world, and if it doesn’t make sense to you, you could be a liability trying to defend the triple option.”

Last week against Virginia, the Irish gave up 416 yards, only 127 of which came on the ground. Notre Dame also held Texas to 60 yards rushing in its opening-week win. But both of those teams currently rank outside the top 100 in rushing offense and finished last season outside the top 50. With Georgia Tech, the Irish are well aware they are facing their toughest ground unit on the season.

“We know exactly what to expect from them, and now we’ve got to go out and execute defensively,” Kelly said.

Even if the Irish defend well Saturday, they will still surrender plenty of yardage, Irish junior linebacker Jaylon Smith said. What the game will come down to is not giving up key plays.

“There’s no true way to really stop it. There’s a reason every year they’re No. 1 or No. 2 in rushing,” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of eye discipline and making sure you’re on your duty, you’re on your job.”

And if that wasn’t difficult enough, the Irish secondary, which was torched by the Cavaliers last week, will still have to be on the lookout for the occasional pass. Thomas has thrown for three touchdowns this season, and the Yellow Jackets rank first in passing efficiency in the FBS, a category they topped last year as well.

“You really have to be disciplined in this game, as a corner,” senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell said. “It can be an easy game if you stay disciplined and follow your guy around. … You got to understand your role.”

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

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