Maryland has daunting task in defending Georgia Tech's triple-option offense

Paul Johnson had grown tired of the question.

It was 2008, and the former Navy coach — entering his first season at Georgia Tech — was repeatedly asked by the media whether the option-based offense he ran so successfully at Navy would translate in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Johnson folded his arms and exhaled. "I get a kick out of, 'Will this work on this level?' he said. "I'm like, 'Are we playing the NFC East?' Last I looked, the last six years at Navy, we were playing Division I teams."

Three years later, no one is asking the question anymore.

Not after the way the No. 13 Yellow Jackets (5-0, 2-0 ACC) — whose 2008 predecessors were fed a steady diet of Navy video to learn the offense — are dismantling defenses. Georgia Tech is 31-14 since Johnson was hired, including 8-4 against nationally ranked opponents.

Through five games this season, the Yellow Jackets — who host Maryland on Saturday — lead the nation in rushing yards (378.2 per game) and are second to Oregon in scoring at 51.6 points per game.

"We are probably operating at a little higher efficiency right now than we have since I've been here, but we have actually only played half of the season, too," Johnson said Wednesday. "It's like anything; it's been hit and miss. And there's still a lot of things that we can get better at, for sure."

Georgia Tech tends to start quickly — before defenses can get acclimated to the triple options's ball fakes and speed.

In three straight games to open the season, the Yellow Jackets scored on their first offensive play. The touchdown plays went for 5, 73 and 95 yards. The Jackets have scored on their first possession in every game. And Georgia Tech can also throw. Junior quarterback Tevin Washington has thrown 10 touchdown passes and just one interception, and the Yellow Jackets lead the nation in passing efficiency.

"They have more answers now than what they have done before in terms of what they do," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "Not only in the run game, but also now that they are throwing the ball really well."

Edsall's history with Johnson includes a 38-0 win in 2002 and a 41-17 loss in 2006. Edsall was coaching Connecticut in those games, and Johnson was with Navy.

Since most teams don't run the option, Georgia Tech is challenging for opposing scout teams to duplicate in practice.

After beating Towson, 28-3, on Saturday, Maryland (2-2, 1-0 ACC) switched its usual schedule.

"We usually watch game film from the last game. Instead of that, we got right into Georgia Tech because teams like this you've got to really prepare for," cornerback Dexter McDougle said. "You've got to really study and watch film."

In 2010, the Terps practiced for Navy's triple option without a ball. It allowed the scout team to run the offense faster without worrying about fumbling.

"We practice without a ball still," McDougle said. "We're focusing on our keys. We're playing like everybody has the ball."

It's hard to detect weaknesses in the triple option. Linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said he has found that teams that successfully defend that offense "get them to turn the ball over a lot."

Maryland leads the ACC in turnover margin at plus-6. But it's hard to rely on turnovers, which result from defensive technique but also often from luck — the particular bounce of a loose ball.

Johnson said his team is far from perfect. He listed a number of items Wednesday — including his rushing defense and return game — and never sounded like a coach whose team is 5-0.

"Oh, gosh, we can improve just about everywhere," he said.\sunjeffbarker