CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson linebacker Corico Hawkins still isn't sure what happened last December: How could a Tigers defense that forced six Georgia Tech punts earlier in the season not stop the Yellow Jackets when it mattered most in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
For Georgia Tech's triple option attack, the answer's usually as simple as one, two, three — pitch, dive and quarterback. The Yellow Jackets showed that to perfection last fall, relentlessly driving 86 yards on 13 plays for the winning touchdown with 1:20 left in a 39-34 ACC champion victory over the Tigers.
"We all know it's assignment football," Hawkins, a sophomore, said in repeating the words he and his teammates have heard all week. "If you've got the pitchman, you've got the pitchman. If you've got the diveman, you've got the diveman. If you've got the quarterback, you've got the quarterback. It's not as complex as you might think."
Then again, it's made Georgia Tech (5-2, 3-1 ACC) the league's top rushing offense and one of the most efficient at cashing in scores. The Yellow Jackets go after their fifth straight victory over Clemson (3-3, 1-2) at Death Valley on Saturday.
"There are very few offenses that score every time they get the ball," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. "That is our mindset, though."
Clemson came into the ACC championship confident it could slow Georgia Tech as it had during the regular-season matchup. Instead, Georgia Tech scored on eight of its first nine possessions, turning the ball over on downs once on the way to the league crown.
"It's been very hard. This memory has been with us since last December," Tigers defensive end Da'Quan Bowers said.
Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele wants his players to wipe their memories clean and concentrate on technique. Every Tiger has to stick to his assignment. Freelance, even a little, and watch the Yellow Jackets break off a big, big gain.
Steele spent the first half of his 30-year career scheming to stop the option. Then the college game broke wide open and the option virtually disappeared. Steele understands, though, the offense has never lost its effectiveness because of its, well, three options.
Steele explained how the decisions made by Georgia Tech quarterback Joshua Nesbitt to keep the ball, pitch outside to a tailback or hand off straightahead to a fullback require more than half his defense to stop. That makes pressuring Nesbitt near impossible.
We're already at six guys," Steele said. "There's only five left, so how exotic can you get?"
Facing Georgia Tech also means a ton of prep work that typically has little benefit the rest of your season. Plus high schools that lived by the triple-option decades ago have morphed to more pro-style, multiple receiver schemes meaning defenders no longer face Georgia Tech-style attacks as prep stars.
"You'd be hard pressed to go any Friday night and see a run play," Steele said.
After losing star Jonathan Dwyer to the NFL draft last year, some wondered if Georgia Tech might take a step back. And an early loss at Kansas seemed to point that way. However, the Yellow Jackets have rebounded with three straight wins to get back in the hunt for a second straight title-game appearance. Nesbitt is second in ACC rushing and running back Anthony Allen fourth.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Nesbitt, the Yellow Jackets senior leader, makes them go and the Tigers must keep him locked down to have a chance.
Hawkins, Clemson's linebacker, says it's important for everyone to do their jobs — and just their jobs — for the Tigers to have success. "We are always eager to work to get better, no matter what the situation is that we face," he said.