ATLANTA – Georgia Tech kicked off the ACC's most intriguing experiment Thursday by averaging 7.6 yards per carry and proving its run-oriented offense also could make big plays through the air.
Now comes the hard part.
All the Yellow Jackets proved Thursday in a 41-14 victory over Jacksonville State was that the same offense that worked so well at Navy also can overwhelm a Division I-AA team that hasn't reached the playoffs since 2004. Tech's job gets much tougher the next two weeks.
Georgia Tech opens its ACC schedule next Saturday at Boston College, which adds mammoth tackle B.J. Raji – who sat out 2007 with academic problems – to a defense that ranked second in the nation against the run last year. The Yellow Jackets follow that up by heading to Virginia Tech, which has ranked in the top five in total defense each of the past four seasons and was fifth in the nation in run defense in 2007.
No wonder new Tech coach Paul Johnson wasn't ready to open any champagne after one game. "We're going to have to get better faster," he said, "because the competition level is going to get a lot better."
Georgia Tech's 484-yard effort Thursday might not offer any indication of whether this offense can work in the ACC, but it still provided Yellow Jackets fans with plenty of reason for optimism.
Sophomore Jonathan Dwyer showed why he's such an ideal fit for this offense by rushing for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone, but he's far from a one-man show. Five players rushed for at least 50 yards against Jacksonville State. And they did that while rarely utilizing the triple option that made Johnson's Navy offenses so hard to defend.
"We ran it only about six or seven times," Dwyer said. "That surprised us. That's our bread-and-butter play. That's what this offense is all about."
Tech instead showed that the switch to a so-called option attack – the Yellow Jackets actually prefer to call this offense the spread – didn't mean it would abandon the passing game. Navy ranked last in the nation in passing offense during Johnson's final two years there, but long completions set up two of the Yellow Jackets' first three touchdowns Thursday.
Jacksonville State concentrated so much on stopping the run that it constantly left receivers open across the middle of the field. That allowed sophomore Josh Nesbitt to make a 29-yard connection with Lucas Cox and a 39-yard completion to Roddy Jones in the first quarter.
Georgia Tech's first game under Paul Johnson offered indications that plenty of guys will get their hands on the ball. Four players rushed for at least 50 yards and a touchdown. Here's a look at the Yellow Jackets' rushing statistics Thursday in a 41-14 victory over Jacksonville State. Quarterbacks are listed in bold.
Tech nearly always ran the ball whenever Nesbitt entered the game last season, but he showed Thursday that he isn't one-dimensional. He finished 5-for-12 through the air for only 87 yards, but he went 4-for-7 for 82 yards in the first quarter. Tech ended up running the ball 46 times and attempting 15 passes.
"I think we proved something," said Nesbitt, who went 5-for-13 with two of interceptions and one touchdown pass last season.
Of course, Nesbitt remains a much more dangerous runner than passer. Still, Tech has enough weapons to leave defenders with plenty of difficult choices. If the defense blows one assignment or misses one tackle, Nesbitt, Dwyer and Co. have the ability to turn it into a touchdown.
"Playing against this offense, you can have eight or nine or 10 people doing what they're supposed to do," Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe said. "If you have one guy that doesn't take the pitch, it can be 40 yards."
Then again, the level of competition probably had much to do with Tech's success. Jacksonville State is a Division I-AA program that has gone 6-5 each of the past three seasons. It seems unlikely Raji and Ron Brace will give up quite as much running room at the line of scrimmage next week. If BC defensive end Alex Albright has Nesbitt in his grasp in the backfield, he likely won't let him slip free. And BC's linebacker duo of Brian Toal and Mark Herzlich won't allow Tech players to roam free across the middle of the field.
BC also could bring back bad memories for Georgia Tech. Boston College's 24-10 victory at Tech last season exposed the Yellow Jackets' shortcomings after they had opened with two lopsided victories.
"I think our confidence level will be high from this win," Nesbitt said. "Last year's last year. We'll go in with the same game plan and run our offense."
And Tech has no reason to doubt itself. For all the talk about how this attack will fare in a major conference, Johnson's Navy teams have proved this type of offense could move the ball against ACC competition. Two years ago, Navy rushed for 322 yards against Boston College in the Meineke Car Care Bowl and had the game won until a late fumble helped the Eagles escape with a 25-24 victory. Navy gained 540 total yards in a 46-43 victory over Duke last season and also rushed for 328 yards in a 44-24 loss to Wake Forest.
The question is how long it will take for Tech to operate this offense as smoothly as Navy was running it the past two seasons. Navy went 2-10 in its first season under Johnson before winning at least eight games each of the next five seasons. Tech is much more talented than Johnson's early Navy teams, so there shouldn't be as long of a learning curve.
Then again, the Yellow Jackets don't have much time to get the hang of it. They're heading to Boston College next week.
"They say teams make the most improvement from game one to game two, and certainly we'll need to do that next week," Johnson said. "Overall, we had some players make big plays, but we weren't near as consistent as I would like, really, on either side of the ball."
Once Tech finds that consistency, the Yellow Jackets ought to have success with this offense. Any remaining skeptics need only look at Navy's recent performances against Boston College, Duke and Wake Forest. Or else they should just listen to the guy who couldn't slow this offense down Thursday night.
"There are just too many issues with this offense for people to deal with it," Crowe said. "We had 2 ½ weeks to deal with it. The rest of these folks will get two days. Good luck, ACC."