The now-annual divisional meeting of Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh recently has brought together two of the more uncommon offenses among Power Five teams.
With Tech in 2017, that remains the same with coach Paul Johnson calling the shots. For Pitt, its offense is led by a new play-caller for the third consecutive season after the previous two left for SEC destinations. Jim Chaney, who helped popularize the spread offense at Purdue with Joe Tiller, left for Georgia after the 2015 season, while Matt Canada’s diverse playbook headed for LSU after last season. Now, Shawn Watson, a former offensive coordinator at Nebraska, Louisville and Texas, will call the plays against the Yellow Jackets on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
In the previous two seasons, Pitt gave Tech issues on defense, totaling nearly 400 total yards in each meeting. The Panthers have averaged more than 200 yards on the ground, 21.5 first downs and have held the ball longer than Tech in both games.
“I think that’s their MO,” Johnson said about Pitt holding onto the ball. “That’s what they’ve been so good at the past couple years. They did a good of that against Penn State.”
The basis of Pitt’s success has come with a running game that focuses on keeping the defense guessing with misdirection, counters, jet sweeps and ever-changing formations. Most famous, Canada called a tackle-throwback last season which resulted in Pitt’s left tackle running in a 24-yard touchdown on the left sideline after quarterback Nathan Peterman rolled out right on a bootleg.
Even with Watson, who uses more of a conventional spread offense, the Panthers appear to still do most of the things they have in the past. Though Pitt is undecided on two quarterbacks going into Saturday, Johnson expects it to be much of the same.
“Yeah, they’re a little different than what I call the NCAA offense,” Johnson said of Pitt’s offensive attack. “They have a lot of option principles in what they do, a lot of reads, trying to get leverage, trying to get numbers on you.”
Senior safety Corey Griffin weighed in on the comparison of Pitt’s offense last season with this season’s.
“They’re definitely similar to last year,” Griffin said. “They have all the eye candy. They have great players. A friend of mine plays for them, No. 85 Jester Weah, so it’s going to be fun competing against him as well.”
Pitt shows many different looks to get the ball into the hands of a large number of players. Through three games, nine Panthers have recorded carries and 11 have caught passes. By comparison, in two games for Tech’s option attack, eight players have carried the ball and five have recorded receptions.
Canada’s unique style often used large, monster packages that featured multiple tight ends and a fullback while keeping a receiver out wide. With pre-snap motions and misdirection, the Panthers liked a smash-mouth running style and worked to get their playmakers outside in space with so much focus being on the inside.
Eye candy must have been a term used frequently in preparation, because following Griffin’s reference to it, senior defensive end KeShun Freeman also noted it when talking about the preparation for Pitt.
“You just have to be disciplined and everything,” Freeman said. “You just have to know that if you’re going to check something, check it. If not, just play your keys and do what you have to do because they’re going to definitely throw a lot of eye candy at you, but you just have to be disciplined and play your keys and play your part.”
Defensive end Anree Saint-Amour, who’s coming off a career game against Jacksonville State with two sacks, kept the trend going as he talked about the game plan against the Panthers.
“Just checking where the tight end is at, making sure you know the reverse is coming, just making sure where you’re at,” Saint-Amour said. “Because the coaches do a good job with the plays and everything and teaching us our technique. It kind of puts us in position to make the play, so we don’t get sucked up in all the eye candy. As long as we keep disciplined and do what the coaches tell us to do, we should be fine.”
When news arrived that the Central Florida game scheduled for last weekend was canceled, Tech was able to shift attention to the Pitt game earlier than expected. While the coaching staff gave the players the weekend off to rest, some of the defense -- notably the defensive line -- planned extra preparation for the Panthers. Defensive tackle Brentavious Glanton said he expected the unit to come in for film work on Friday and Saturday. Freeman confirmed Tuesday that the work was put in to be ready for a key divisional matchup.
“We’ve been doing a lot of preparations,” Freeman said. “We’ve been watching their film and everything, making sure that we know exactly what they’ve done in the past few games. We even went as far back to the 2015 game and last year’s game, just to see some of the things they’ve done in the past … some of the plays that they’ve made, and we’re just going into the game making sure that we have a play, a person, for each kind of play.”