Pittsburgh's well-schooled in Georgia Tech's spread option offense

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ATLANTA — Pittsburgh is hoping its schedule provided the perfect setup for this week’s challenge of defending Georgia Tech’s spread-option offense.

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Georgia Tech running back Zach Laskey (37) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against Virginia in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Ryan M. Kelly)  Ryan M. Kelly
Ryan M. Kelly
Georgia Tech running back Zach Laskey (37) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against Virginia in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Ryan M. Kelly)

Coach Paul Johnson’s option offense is unlike any other attack on most teams’ schedules. It can be an especially daunting challenge for Atlantic Coast Conference newcomers facing Georgia Tech for the first time in Johnson’s six seasons. Syracuse was crushed 56-0 by the Yellow Jackets only two weeks ago.

The offense won’t be new to Pitt (4-3, 2-2 ACC) on Saturday night, however. The Panthers are coming off last week’s 24-21 loss at Navy, which retained the spread-option offense when Johnson left Annapolis for Georgia Tech.

Even with the loss, Pitt gained valuable experience in preparing for Georgia Tech (5-3, 4-2). The Pitt-Navy game also provided Johnson a chance to see the Panthers’ defense play against the offense.

The Panthers’ extra work against the spread option may be no more of an advantage than Johnson’s preview of Pitt’s defense against the scheme. Johnson said the Pitt-Navy film is “good for us to look at, having not played them.” Even so, Johnson said he would prefer to play a team that was not facing the spread option for the second straight week.

“If I’d had my druthers, I would rather them not played Navy,” Johnson said. “It probably benefits them a little more to get the speed of the offense.”

Navy had 220 yards rushing and scored 10 points in the final 4 minutes, including a last-second field goal, to beat the Panthers.

“It’s a challenge,” said Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst. “Tech obviously runs it very well. We certainly saw it at a different speed Saturday against Navy than we did against our scout team. The disadvantages, (Georgia Tech) got some pretty good film to look at.”

Chryst said the loss to Navy doesn’t mean the Panthers can’t beat Georgia Tech.

Pitt has split its first four ACC games, beating Duke and Virginia and losing to Florida State and Virginia Tech. The Panthers are playing Georgia Tech for the first time since their 1976 national championship season.

Georgia Tech has recovered from three straight losses to Virginia Tech, Miami and BYU with back-to-back wins over Syracuse and Virginia

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Here are five things to watch in the matchup of ACC Coastal Division teams:

BLOCKING DONALD: The fullback — or B-back — dive is one of Georgia Tech’s base plays, and waiting in the middle of Pitt’s defense will be senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who has eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for losses. Johnson calls Donald “as good a player as we’ve played against or as we’ve seen.” The Yellow Jackets have struggled with injuries on their offensive line all season, and blocking Donald may require extra attention. That could make it easier for the Panthers to defend option pitches on the perimeter.

BOOKEND RECEIVERS: Pitt senior Devin Street had nine catches against Navy to become Pitt’s all-time leader with 186 receptions. Street’s 35 catches this season are only one more than talented freshman Tyler Boyd, who leads the team with five touchdown catches. Boyd had eight catches, including three for touchdowns, against Duke.

AVOID TURNOVERS: Georgia Tech followed its lopsided win over Syracuse with an ugly 35-25 win at Virginia last week. The Yellow Jackets had to overcome five turnovers, including two interceptions on only a combined nine attempts by Vad Lee and Justin Thomas. Lee has thrown six interceptions this season, and he needs to avoid mistakes to avoid losing snaps to Thomas.

SAVAGE INVASION: Pitt senior Tom Savage ranks fifth in the ACC with his average of 220.9 yards passing per game. He has thrown 13 touchdown passes with six interceptions and he tied an ACC record with six scoring passes in a 58-55 win over Duke on Sept. 21. Savage will be a test for an improved Georgia Tech defense which has two shutouts this season but still ranks only 10th in the conference against the pass.

RULING THE RED ZONE: Georgia Tech has scored 25 touchdowns in 30 red-zone possessions. That 83.3 percent success rate inside the 20 is second among FBS schools, trailing only Wyoming at 87.8 percent. The Yellow Jackets have had nine players score on running plays, making it difficult for defenses to key on any one back. David Sims leads the team with eight rushing touchdowns. Zach Laskey and Lee each have six.

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