EL PASO — Paul Johnson likes to keep it simple, at least on the surface.
Georgia Tech’s coach has run the same basic offense for nearly three decades, tinkering here, adding a few wrinkles there, though never straying far from the principles of an attack that annually produces some of the top rushing yardage totals in college football.
Johnson calls it a spread option, but it includes elements of the triple option, double wing, the wing T and wishbone, morphing into what some dub the flexbone.
If that sounds complicated, Johnson makes it look like anything but that.
So when USC plays Georgia Tech on Monday in the Sun Bowl, the Trojans must slow down an offense that appears to run only a handful of plays.
“I’ve always had the philosophy that I would rather do a few things well than have a lot of things and not be good at anything,” Johnson said.
Georgia Tech, like previous Johnson-coached teams at Georgia Southern and Navy, is prolific at rushing the ball.
The Yellow Jackets have averaged 312.5 yards rushing per game, which ranks fourth nationally. They average 34.5 points.
“This coach knows what he’s doing,” Monte Kiffin, USC’s assistant head coach for defense, said of Johnson. “This ain’t his first rodeo.”
The 72-year-old father of USC Coach Lane Kiffin schemed against Oklahoma’s famed wishbone offense as a Nebraska and Arkansas assistant in the 1970s.
Kiffin, who is stepping down after the Sun Bowl, referenced former Oklahoma stars such as quarterback Jack Mildren and running backs Billy Sims and Elvis Peacock when discussing Georgia Tech and what he describes as “an inverted wishbone.”
“If you’re not disciplined,” he said of the Yellow Jackets, “they can make you look silly.”
For all its rushing prowess, Georgia Tech is 6-7 and required a waiver from the NCAA to play in a bowl game.
But Lane Kiffin said that “in a weird way” playing Georgia Tech was similar to playing high-powered Oregon, “as far as not a ton of plays being run.”
“They do the same things over and over,” he said of Georgia Tech, “but they’re so good at it and they have the answers down so well that as soon as you do something after a few plays, they adjust to it.”
Johnson, like Lane Kiffin, doubles as offensive coordinator. But he makes adjustments on the fly on the sideline, and does it without a play-call sheet.
Johnson, 55, was offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern, Hawaii and Navy before he became Georgia Southern’s coach and won Division II national titles in 1999 and 2000.
In 2002, he returned to Navy as coach, leading the Midshipmen to five bowl games in six seasons before taking over at Georgia Tech in 2008.
Georgia Tech’s base formation features five linemen, two receivers split wide to opposite sides, the quarterback under center, a fullback lined up almost right behind him and two running back/receivers known as A-backs that line up just off the outside hip of the tackles.
On most plays, an A-back is in motion, arcing behind the fullback and giving the Yellow Jackets a moving I formation to set up the option.
The quarterback’s first duty after the snap is to “read” a defensive lineman and either hand off to the fullback or keep the ball. If he keeps it, he reads another defender and continues running or pitches to the trailing back.
“You’ve got to be able to make split-second decisions,” quarterback Tevin Washington said.
Meantime, linemen fire off the line of scrimmage and cut block defenders below the waist.
Senior guard Omoregie Uzzi said knocking defenders off their feet is the goal.
“If they’re down on the ground,” he said, “they definitely can’t make the tackle.”
Washington has rushed for 638 yards and 19 touchdowns. Fullbacks David Sims (513 yards rushing) and Zach Laskey (637 yards) have combined for five touchdowns. Orwin Smith (673 yards) and Robert Godhigh (416 yards) are the starting A-backs.
Despite its emphasis on the run — Georgia Tech ranks 115th among 120 major college teams in passing — the offense also can produce big plays through the air because receivers and A-backs are left in one-on-one coverage.
“If they get going,” USC safety T.J. McDonald said, “they can go for 50 or 60 points.”
Georgia Tech twice scored more than 50 points and hung 68 on North Carolina. But the Yellow Jackets also were limited to 17 points in losses to Virginia Tech and Brigham Young, 10 in a defeat against Georgia and 15 in a loss to Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Still, from the day the Sun Bowl matchup was announced, USC coaches and players have said they were glad to have a month, rather than a week, to prepare for the Yellow Jackets offense.
Extra time seems to be an equalizer: Georgia Tech is 0-4 in bowl games under Johnson, including last year’s 30-27 overtime loss to Utah in the Sun Bowl.
But that streak could end if the Trojans can’t stop the Yellow Jackets.
“By the time we play,” USC defensive end Wes Horton said, “We’re going to be more than ready.”