The cliché is that football is a game of inches.
But of acting?
In the Atlantic Coast Conference, a well-rounded team of thespians is a must. And while the Academy isn’t likely to nominate a band of sweaty football players for any hardware, a practice squad’s emulation of the opposing offense for the week is crucial, especially in the ACC, home to a bizarre offensive potpourri.
Take North Carolina for example. Last season, it opened its ACC schedule with Virginia, as balanced any offense in the country and without any notable star. The next week it played Georgia Tech, owners of the best option in college football. The Yellow Jackets averaged 316 rushing yards per game last season.
Later in the Tar Heels’ campaign, they had the task of dealing with Clemson, a no-time-for-breathing attack that aims to run 80 plays per game. North Carolina also drew Virginia Tech and Logan Thomas, a 6-foot-6, 262-pound mountain who somehow ended up as a quarterback and not a defensive end.
Then there was N.C. State, which runs a pro-style offense, and Duke, which even at 3-9 had a top tier spread passing game.
There are lots of ways to conduct an offense, and playing good defense in the ACC means being ready for the entire arsenal.
“Every week, it’s a new challenge. You just have to take that challenge head on,” Wake Forest defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock said. “There will be games where you’re on the field 40 plays for the whole game, and there will be games where you’re on the field 100 plays.
“You just take every game as a unique challenge.”
Of all the challenges, Georgia Tech’s triple option is far and away the least favorite offense among ACC defenses.
“That Georgia Tech practice ...” N.C. State safety Earl Wolff sighs and shakes his head. “Oh, man. I’m talking sideline-to-sideline every play. I think I made the first four tackles of the game last year, and I was coming from the opposite side every time. It’s a little difficult, man.”
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, who used the same system to revive a wayward program while the coach at Navy, has proven the system still is capable of being successful. The Yellow Jackets have appeared in a bowl game in each of Johnson’s four season as coach, even winning the 2009 ACC championship before having it vacated because an ineligible player competed in the team’s final three games.
As passing games continued to evolve in the 1980s and ’90s, the option fell out of favor; in fact, Georgia Tech is the only team in the major six conferences that runs an option exclusively. Even at Nebraska, where the scheme was as much a part of the program as its Black Shirt defense for the better part of six decades, abandoned it after Frank Solich was fired in 2004.
The system, infamous for low blocking and long drives, is resented by many defensive players.
“I talked to some other defensive players, and they’re curious. They asked me – (defensive tackle) Joe Vellano from Maryland asked me how it was practicing against it,” Georgia Tech linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu said. “The option is one of those mental parts of football you have to work on. And physical shape: If you’re not in physical shape, the option is going to take advantage of you.”
In some cases, systems on the extreme end of the offensive spectrum actually have helped their team’s defense.
Clemson defensive end Malliciah Goodman said the Tigers’ fitness was excellent last season because it practiced against such a fast offense. Kevin Reddick, a linebacker at North Carolina, which is installing a hurry-up under new coach Larry Fedora, said he has already seen improved endurance because of the new system.
And it’s hard to wind the Yellow Jackets.
“We can withstand a long drive or a long haul,” Attaochu said. “We’ve had times in spring practice where the option has run 17, 19 plays. I remember last year against Virginia, they ran 19 plays. We’ve had those in practice.
“We know what it’s like to have a team drive on you, then stiffen up when they get to the goal line.”
Battling totally different schemes week after week has fittingly produced many philosophies on the best course of action.
Some teams prepare for each new offense by implementing a new system based on the opponent. Others keep their defense but add new packages. Those ultra-confident in their film study go on the attack, aiming to expose the cracks in a system.
Yet others, like Duke, stick to what they do regardless of the method on the other side of the ball.
The Blue Devils installed a nickel hybrid with three safties instead of the normal two in 2011. The “4-2-5” was a hit with the defensive players, who had grown tired of learning a new scheme on the fly every week.
“You’re not distracted by all the stuff other offenses are doing, you can apply (the defense) to the offense they throw at us,” Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “I think the 4-2-5 is a nice balance to be a run stopper and a pass defender.”
In terms of yardage, the defense was a success for Duke, but in terms of wins (three) and ranking (11th out of 12 ACC teams in total defense), the change had, at best, mixed results.
On the flip side, one exotic offense can backfire should a defense find a key to foiling it.
Clemson was steamrolling its competition (including defending champ Auburn) through eight weeks last season. At 8-0, the Tigers climbed to No. 6 in the rankings on the back of their offense, which was averaging more than 40 points and 482 yards per game.
Then teams, starting with Georgia Tech, sat back in zones against Clemson to dare sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd to force throws.
Boyd threw seven interceptions compared to four touchdowns in the Tigers’ final four regular season games, three of which were lopsided losses.
Incompletions forced Clemson out of the hurry-up, allowing defenses to substitute freely, and more importantly, throw off the Tigers’ desire to gain big chunks of yardage, quickly.
“All of the sudden, (Boyd is) outside of our system,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “They’re rushing three and dropping eight, and we’re still trying to fit balls down the field. That’s a dangerous, dangerous scenario.”
An ACC team hasn’t played in the BCS National Championship Game since the 2000 season. While many argue – correctly – that the conference didn’t have a team talented enough to play for the title during that span, the mix of offenses in the conference does play a role.
Only one team since 2000 Florida State finished 8-0 in the ACC.
With so many varying schemes, a partial explanation is that every team in the ACC, even those capable of running the table, will face a bad in-conference match-up at some point during the season.
Though championships have eluded the ACC for more than a decade, signature offenses have helped achieve parity in the conference.
While the ACC’s equality has damaged the conference’s reputation, parity is exciting. All that acting aimed to stop offenses, but it provided something much more standard: Good theater.
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or at npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com