Asked when he had faced an offense like Georgia Tech’s, Tulane junior safety Darion Monroe was stumped for a second before he stumbled into an answer.
John Curtis High School.
That’s the unique challenge as the defense tries to recover from a disappointing performance in a season-opening 38-31 double-overtime loss at Tulsa. After giving up nearly 600 yards Thursday, the Green Wave needs to correct those mistakes while getting ready for a run-based triple option that bears no resemblance to the Golden Hurricane’s spread-oriented, passing offense.
Was the trouble in Tulsa an aberration or a trend-setter? Does it even matter?
Tulsa threw 53 passes. Georgia Tech, which uses an offense usually seen only at the service academies, averaged fewer than 16 pass attempts last season.
Operating out of the flex bone, the Yellow Jackets have finished sixth or higher in rushing and among the bottom 10 nationally in passing in all six years of coach Paul Johnson’s tenure.
“We did some stuff last spring, and in training camp we had some option days and option periods,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “We’ve been looking at those guys since probably last season. This offense is totally different than what most people run, so we had to put in a lot of time on this one.”
The Wave appeared better equipped to stop an option team last year with seniors at key spots. Tackle Julius Warmsley, who was added to the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad this week, locked down the middle along with big nose guard Chris Davenport. Experienced middle linebackers Zach Davis and Dominique Robertson cleaned up behind them.
Their replacements on the interior of the line are true sophomore Tanzel Smart and junior Corey Redwine, who had four career starts entering the year. The Wave barely used its inexperienced middle linebackers against Tulsa, going with a nickel look while sophomores Eric Thomas and Edward Williams and freshman Rae Juan Marbley (combined tackles in 2013: 16) watched from the sideline.
Still, Monroe said Tulane would have a quick defensive turnaround if the players maintained their discipline.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge, but with option football, everybody has to do their job,” he said. “If you have to tackle the dive, you tackle the dive. If you have the quarterback, you go to the quarterback. If you have the pitch, you have the pitch. If everybody does their job, we’ll be OK.”
Several players failed to do their job against Tulsa. With Tulane up 14-0 early, linebacker Nico Marley gave the Golden Hurricane a first down with a late-hit penalty that negated an upcoming third-and-long. Tulsa capitalized with a 43-yard touchdown pass as safety Leonard Davis let receiver Keevan Lucas run right by him.
In the final minute of the first half, Monroe gambled for an interception and watched the ball sail over his head to Lucas. Safety Brandon LeBeau then whiffed on a tackle, allowing Lucas to score an 84-yard touchdown.
“That changed the momentum to me,” Monroe said. “I misjudged the ball. The guy made a great play and caught the ball with that distraction of me running across his face.”
Those are correctable errors. The question is whether Tulane’s defense, which has six new starters, is physically ready for Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets have not sustained their early success under Paul Johnson, following an 11-3 Coastal Division-winning season in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2009 with records of 6-7, 8-5, 7-7 and 7-6. But Tech still beat Coastal Division champ Duke 38-14 last year and beat Syracuse 56-0.
Although the Jackets struggled to put away Wofford on Saturday, leading 24-19 in the fourth quarter before winning 38-19, they added a new wrinkle when first-time starting quarterback Justin Thomas threw for 282 yards on 11 completions.
The threat of the pass gives the Wave one more thing to worry about.
“It’s very challenging,” cornerback Lorenzo Doss said. “That triple option is very hard to defend. Not too many teams can stop it, but we just have to go out there and play fast and physical and get to the ball like our defense usually plays.”