ATLANTA — There's nothing Georgia Tech loves more than to spring a big play out of the triple-option.
You know the drill. The quarterback pitches the ball at just the right time, and a teammate is off to the end zone. Or a receiver breaks free behind the secondary, which is so focused on stopping the run that it forgets to cover that guy running down the middle of the field.
"We're a home-run team," said A-back Orwin Smith. "We want to get the ball in the hands of the guys who can make home runs."
Those plays happened with amazing frequency in the first three games. Granted, the No. 12 Yellow Jackets weren't exactly facing an imposing group of opponents — Western Carolina, Middle Tennessee and Kansas — but it was still a sight to behold.
Georgia Tech (6-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) is still winning, heading into Saturday's game at Virginia (3-2, 0-1) looking to build on its best start in 45 years. Yet there's some concern about the high-powered offense, which is finding it much tougher to strike fast and furiously.
That was certainly the case last week. The Yellow Jackets slogged to a season-low 386 yards against Maryland, their unbeaten mark remaining intact with a not-so-impressive 21-16 victory.
"It's getting tougher," Smith said. "But that's something we expect. As we get into conference play, the competition is going to get better and better each week. That's something we're looking forward to, but we also have to be ready to execute."
The Terrapins certainly provided a blueprint for teams such as Virginia to follow when it comes to defending the triple-option. They switched up assignments, forcing quarterback Tevin Washington into a number of bad reads.
Instead of pitching the ball to Smith and the A-backs or handing off to B-back David Sims, Washington just kept keeping the ball himself. He wound up with a staggering 32 carries, accounting for nearly 40 percent of Georgia Tech's 81 plays. While he finished with 120 yards and two touchdowns, that was more a product of volume than quality runs.
"If I've got to run the ball, I've got to make sure it's the best play we're doing," Washington said. "If not, I've got to make sure I put the ball in the A-backs' and B-backs' hands."
Against Maryland, no one ran the ball even half as many times as Washington. Sims carried 14 times for 83 yards. Smith got it four times for 41 yards. The other starting B-back, Roddy Jones, managed only 6 yards on two carries.
"It was tough, but I think I made it tough on myself by not being patient with my reads," Washington said. "It was more me not being patient with reading the ends and making good decisions."
The Yellow Jackets scored on their first offensive play in each of their first three games. In fact, they had a total of six one-play scoring drives during that span, the triple-option working just like it's drawn on the board. Twenty-seven plays went for at least 20 yards. A staggering nine plays covered more than 60.
When that stretch was done, Georgia Tech was averaging 59.3 points and 675 yards per game.
Since then, the numbers don't look quite so much like a video game: 33.7 points and 431.7 yards on average in wins over North Carolina, N.C. State and Maryland. While Georgia Tech has broken off another 18 plays of at least 20 yards, there have been no more as long as 60.
The improved quality of the competition has certainly contributed to things bogging down. But there's also a sense the Yellow Jackets aren't playing with quite the same precision as they did early on.
Coach Paul Johnson said that was particularly evident against Maryland. He gave plenty of credit to the Terrapins defense, especially defensive lineman Joe Vellano, who was credited with 20 tackles and may have had one or two more.
"He probably played as well as anybody has played against us in a long, long time," Johnson said. "He was all over the field, sideline to sideline. He was tremendous."
That said, "we did enough to stop ourselves with penalties or miscues in some way," the coach added. "We had some opportunities to hit big plays but we didn't hit 'em, especially early in the game."
Washington blamed himself and vowed to do a better job against Virginia. He knows the quarterback is vital in any offense, but especially in a run-oriented scheme that requires him to wait until the last possible moment to decide who's going to get the ball.
"We got off to some fast starts early in the year," he said. "We've kind of hit a stumbling block these last two or three games. But I think it's just us executing. If we do things right, I don't think we should have any problems."