CLEMSON — Tigers senior linebacker Quandon Christian knows Georgia Tech and its offense well, having logged 166 snaps in his career against the Yellow Jackets.
His assessment of the scheme, however, is succinct.
“It is pretty boring,” Christian said. “But you got to do your assignment or it will be a big play.”
On most playcalls, Paul Johnson’s spread option has three ways to go — the dive, the quarterback run or the pitch, but out of such simplicity, they have touched up the Tigers for the most plays of 20 or more yards (23) of any opponent over the last three seasons.
“It’s very hard to force 11 guys to play with great discipline every snap,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “They just wear you out doing the same thing over and over and guys get bored with it. That’s when you have a lot of issues.”
Tigers playing in the cold Thursday
Last season in Death Valley, the Yellow Jackets scored 28 points in the game’s first 35 minutes, holding a lead early into the fourth quarter, but in the final 25, Clemson held them to a lone field goal — blocking another attempt, while also forcing a safety and a fumble in a 47-31 win.
"There was a bunch of good plays within that game," said Venables. "That was a good win for us as a team because we complemented each other, particularly in the fourth quarter when we opened up a tight game."
Knowing how unusual his style is, Johnson dares teams to overhaul what they do in a week or two-week span.
“More than often, you’re better off dancing with the one that brought you,” he said. “You’re better off doing what you do. I’ve said that for years. That’s why I love to play teams who get away from what they do defensively and try to put something new in each week.”
“In their mind, they’re always going to have answers for what they’re doing,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a cat-and-mouse, but it’s not really earth-shattering. If you’re whooping people upfront, tackling soundly, staying on top of routes and not turning guys loose — you’re leveraging the football and you’re winning the game.”
Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2) has had a bit of a roller-coaster season, winning its first three games, losing three-straight and riding a three-game winning streak into Thursday’s 7:30 kickoff in Memorial Stadium. Any Coastal Division contention is contingent on a win over Clemson (8-1, 6-1 ACC) and some help.
“We’re a team that’s fairly physical,” Johnson said. “We run the ball pretty good and defend the run pretty good. We’ve been in every game we’ve played. I think if we don’t turn the ball over and don’t commit a lot of penalties, we’re a tough out.”
While Georgia Tech’s defense has improved (No. 12 nationally), the offense has set the course, and much of that is thanks to sophomore quarterback Vad Lee’s inconsistency.
In wins, Tech is averaging 350 rushing yards and four rushing scores a game, but in defeat, just 234 yards and two touchdowns.
Lee has averaged only two yards per carry in the losses, but in wins, he’s hit 3.36 per with five touchdowns.
Through the air, the North Carolina native has an almost 20 percent drop in passes completed victory-to-defeat (19.8) — double the interceptions (4), averaging one every 19 throws as it is (6 out of 114).
In the friendly confines of Death Valley, Clemson is holding opponents to just 116.6 rushing yards. On the flipside, Georgia Tech is averaging more rushing yards away from home this season (327.5).
In this matchup maybe more than most, the action on the frontlines should prove to be the difference.
“It starts in the trenches,” junior Tigers defensive end Corey Crawford said. “Our front has to dominate their offensive line to keep them off our linebackers so they can move side to side and they can do what they have to do. It starts with us.”
The forecast in Clemson calls for the season’s coolest kickoff temp, dipping into the low 40s by game’s end.
“As long as I can feel my fingers I’m fine,” Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd said with a smile. “If I can’t do that, it’s a problem. The weather is an external thing that we have no control over. We just have to go out there to play what we’re capable of playing.”
What has heated up on the field is his connection with junior receiver Sammy Watkins.
Over the last two games, Boyd has completed 85 percent of the balls thrown Watkins’ way, totaling 166 yards per contest and two touchdowns. The South Fort Myers (Fla.) product Watkins averaged as many yards per target as he averaged per catch all last year (12.4).
“That’s a lot of trust and confidence in each other,” Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “I think we’ve seen that over the last few weeks. Sammy’s had a great year, but the last couple weeks you’ve really started to see the confidence level.”
Over the last five games, Boyd is averaging 325 passing yards per game with 11 touchdowns to five interceptions (66.9 completion percentage).
BCS bowl a motivator
In his last ever ACC tilt, Clemson is going for a school first, consecutive seasons with seven conference wins.
“This is a defining moment for this season,” Boyd said. “It’s really all about finishing. We’ve had a good season thus far, but we want to make it a great season.”
With FSU clinching the Atlantic Division last week, the goals left on the table are pretty clear — BCS bowl or bust — and that possibility is a mortal lock with an undefeated run to the finish.
In their way? This one then The Citadel for Senior Day next week at noon — and then a possible top-10 showdown at South Carolina to close the regular season. If all goes to plan, they can reach 11 wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history.
“We are going to be judged by how we finish,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That is what November is all about. You to have to finish strong and put your best foot forward.”