SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A decade ago, Paul Johnson wanted to get Georgia Southern on Navy’s schedule “because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.”
Johnson was Georgia Southern’s head coach from 1997-2001, with his success running the triple option landing him a job as Navy’s coach in 2002. After his successor, Mike Sewak, was fired a few years later, VanGorder was hired as Georgia Southern’s head coach and promptly went about installing a more "normal" offense.
While Johnson downplayed his comments about Notre Dame’s current defensive coordinator this week, he was frustrated enough by VanGorder's defenestration of the triple option that he wanted to prove a point by beating up on Georgia Southern.
“VanGorder had made some comments that he didn't think too highly of the offense, and Paul called me up and said, 'I need to talk to (athletics director) Sam (Baker) and get Georgia Southern on the schedule,'" Georgia Southern athletics facilities consultant Roger Inman told USA Today last year. "I said, 'Why do you want to play us?' And he said, 'Because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.' "
Johnson will finally get his crack at VanGorder on Saturday when his top-20 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets travel to South Bend. VanGorder lasted one year at Georgia Southern, going 3-8 before returning to serving as a defensive assistant/coordinator.
Notre Dame’s prepared for this moment since the winter, when Bob Elliott was moved from an on-field coaching role to an analyst position as part of coach Brian Kelly’s staff reshuffling. Elliott was given a primary assignment with games against Georgia Tech and Navy in mind: Study how to defend the triple option.
“We are not trying to reinvent anything, but trying to really make certain that we are doing the right things and preparing our football team,” Kelly said. “So coach Elliot has assisted in it, but it will still go down to the preparation and in our ability to get off blocks and make plays against a really good Georgia Tech team.”
Notre Dame’s defense is stocked with elite athletes, but often times, that doesn’t matter against a triple option offense. The physical talents of Sheldon Day, Jerry Tillery, Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell, Max Redfield & Co. won’t matter if they’re out of position or make a bad read on a given play.
“If you're lost out there, you could be the greatest athlete in the world and if it doesn't make sense to you,” Kelly said, "you could be a liability trying to defend the triple option.”
The problem, Russell said, is turning off that internal playmaking switch. Trying to make a big play — a sack, strip, interception, etc. — is an easy way to get burned and keep a methodically ruthless offense on the field.
“When we start getting bored, whether it’s the corner position, a safety, the D-line, they want to start getting outside their gaps and making plays on the option route outside instead of tackling the fullback, look at their wing back if your key is the fullback, it can get out of whack real quick,” Russell explained. “And it just takes that one play of ‘okay, let me take my eyes off it’ and all of a sudden it’s a big play and that kind of breaks down the entire defense and kind of breaks down the game against a team like this."
“A team like this, you literally can’t give them any momentum," Russell said. "This kind of offense, they can steamroll a team, that’s what they’ve been doing the last two weeks. Just momentum, momentum, momentum constantly feeding off that.”
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Navy’s triple option offense put up 34 and 39 points against Notre Dame in the last two years despite the height and weight restrictions that come with being a service academy. Georgia Tech has bigger, stronger and faster players — like right guard Shamire Devine, who stands at 6-foot-7 and weighs 365 pounds.
The Yellow Jackets averaged a little more than 34 minutes of possession per game last year, in which they went 11-3 and put up 49 points to beat Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. Georgia Tech led the nation with a 58 percent success rate in converting third downs. The chains might as well start moving before the ball is snapped on third-and-short.
“It's never easy,” safety Matthias Farley said. “Technically you have to be sound, and your eyes have to be perfect every play.”
That’s why it’s more of a mental challenge for a defense facing a triple option offense. If Notre Dame’s defensive players don’t make any mental mistakes over the 60-70 plays they’ll see on Saturday, the Irish will have a decent chance to emerge with a win over a team that presents one of college football’s toughest challenges.
If not, Johnson very well may succeed in beating the hell out of VanGorder.