FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Outwardly, Paul Johnson could have cared less if his team notched the rare statistical feat.
With his Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets staring down the opening end of a potential 14-game schedule in late August, the head coach had much larger worries on his mind. Besides, the run-game wizard had already seen most anything when it came to rushing statistics.
“I don’t worry about that stuff,” he said, asked about seeing a pair of 1,000-yard rushers on his team. “It could happen. But you know, we might not have anybody with a thousand yards. I’m more worried about what the team has than individuals have.
“All that will work itself out, it always does.”
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For nearly four-and-a-half months, the concept of two Yellow Jackets rushing for more than 1,000 yards has worked itself for the better. As Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt enters Tuesday’s Orange Bowl against Iowa with just nine yards separating him from that statistical plateau, the program is poised to see something it never has in recorded history.
On one play, two plays or more, Nesbitt could easily overcome the 1,000-yard mark, joining B-back Jonathan Dwyer in enjoying a strong season on the ground.
“It’s great for the school to have that,” Dwyer said of the potential two-man feat. “That’s what the offense brings. You’re going to have a couple 1,000-yard rushers.”
Brought to Georgia Tech last season, Johnson’s unique spread option offense features a running attack that begins with Dwyer pounding the interior of a defense, while Nesbitt reads his way to weaving through, around and over linemen and linebackers.
Although there have never been two players in Georgia Tech history to run for 1,000 yards in the same season, Johnson has already seen it happen three times on his teams due to the nature of his system.
In 1997 and 1998, when he was the head coach at Georgia Southern, Johnson witnessed his B-back and quarterback surpass the rushing mark. Five years later, while coaching Navy, he watched the same position combination shatter the total again.
“They’re freaks,” Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer said of Dwyer and Nesbitt on Friday. “It’s unbelievable.”
What is most unbelievable in his eyes, as well as those of his fellow defensive teammates, is the way Dwyer and Nesbitt have compiled their yards this season. A pair of tackle-breaking workhorses, the vast majority of Nesbitt and Dwyer’s yards have been well earned.
“I’m not really looking forward to tackling them,” Angerer said, laughing, “because they’ll probably be tackling me.”
After battling a nagging shoulder injury early in the season, Dwyer — who currently has 1,346 yards, just shy of his total of 1,395 last year — began to run harder and harder the deeper the Yellow Jackets got in the season.
Running through tackles and dropping a few ferocious stiff-arms on defenders when the Yellow Jackets traveled to Charlottesville, Va., on Oct. 24, the running back walked away with several memorable runs that were immediately posted on YouTube.
“It’s great (blocking for Dwyer), as long as you get out of his way,” center Sean Bedford said. “He’s no fun to have running down your back, I can tell you that much.”
Much like Angerer, Iowa linebacker A.J. Edds will be excited to finally see how Georgia Tech’s run-based scheme is executed with Dwyer at the center of the attack, but he may not want to get in the running back’s way.
The big, hard-running junior reminds Edds of a player he used to see on a regular basis.
“We had a brilliant running back last year in Shonn Greene,” Edds said.
A Heisman hopeful, Greene rushed for a program-record 1,850 yards last season.
“Looking at (Dwyer) on film a lot, he reminds me of Shonn,” Edds said. “Similar body build, just a thick guy that’s always falling forward. He’s never going down on one tackle. It’s usually a gang that’s taking him down.
“And the quarterback’s the same way.”
Noted for his never-say-die attitude in clutch, late-game situations this season, Nesbitt has earned the title of “warrior” from his teammates and coaches.
In addition to grinding out a long, eight-minute drive against North Carolina to cap an early-season Yellow Jackets victory, the quarterback snatched the ball from a Florida State defender to set up a game-sealing touchdown run against the Seminoles. He also converted a successful fourth-down dive against Wake Forest that propelled Georgia Tech to a key, late-season overtime win.
“He’s really just taken this team on his back, and there have been a number of times where he’s just said, ‘Follow me guys, I’m going to take you in, we’re going to win this game,’” Bedford said of Nesbitt. “You can’t say enough about his toughness. You look at how many times he gets hit in this offense; I’d love to see another quarterback take the type of beating he does. He is the toughest player I’ve been around.”
Iowa defensive end Broderick Binnis has only watched Nesbitt on film, but from the tape, he has felt vibes similar to Bedford’s.
“Most quarterbacks, if they keep getting hit in the first half, the second half, you can see them get tired or easing up when they run. But this guy doesn’t do that,” Binnis said. “He brings it every down, and it’s something that we really can’t prepare for because that scout team, it’s not Josh Nesbitt.”
In addition to his 991 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns, Nesbitt has proven that he has the ability to pass in Johnson’s system.
Holding a 156.78 passing efficiency rating, the quarterback has thrown for nearly 1,700 yards this season and 10 touchdowns. Although he likely will fall short of 2,000 yards passing following Tuesday’s game, he will still finish the season with passing and rushing numbers that very few quarterbacks have.
“He’s done a great job this year and he’s really missing out on a lot of accolades that he should have received this year,” Dwyer said. “Not a lot of guys throw for 1,000 and have the opportunity to run for 1,000 and have all the touchdowns that he’s had. He’s a great player, a great person, a great leader and he’s done a great job this year.”