November 8, 2006
ATLANTA - Georgia Tech's character change is all but complete.
A football program known in recent years for its inconsistency, known for choking away close games, known for underachievement, suddenly is showing championship form.
The Yellow Jackets headed into a Nov. 11 game at North Carolina needing only to defeat the Tar Heels or Duke (the following week) to clinch the ACC's Coastal Division title and earn a spot in the league's Dec. 2 championship game.
Win both - and they should, considering that UNC and Duke have yet to defeat a Division I-A opponent this season - and Tech will have as many 2006 conference wins as it has had total victories in each of coach Chan Gailey's previous four seasons at the school.
A 7-1 conference finish would be the Yellow Jackets' best since quarterback Joe Hamilton led the team to the same mark in 1998. And as impressive as their record is, the way the Jackets are winning games is even more striking.
Tech has rallied from behind in the fourth quarter for its last three ACC wins: against Atlantic Division leader Maryland, Miami and N.C. State. Sandwiched between those was a humbling loss to Clemson, yet the Jackets responded with the vital division win against the Hurricanes the next week.
That's pretty impressive work for a team with a history of failure at signs of adversity. The Jackets had lost back-to-back games six times in the previous three seasons.
"Everything's different right now," Tech tailback Tashard Choice said following the 31-23 win at N.C. State. "We've been here before. Everybody leaned on each other and said, 'That's OK, we'll get it back, we're not down.' It's all about the now moments right now."
Specifically, it's all about Reggie Ball. Tech's quarterback, criticized by the media and loathed by many fans for his failings throughout his career, has proven to be a clutch performer in his fourth year as a starter.
He's led the recent comebacks, shaking off mistakes and otherwise bad games to pull his team through. Consider what he's done in the last month.
Trailing Maryland by nine points entering the fourth quarter on Oct. 7, Ball engineered a 62-yard touchdown drive. He ran for 16 yards on the possession, completed a crucial 11-yard pass on a third-and-six play and scored on an eight-yard run. The drive swung the momentum Tech's way, with the defense forcing a fumble on Maryland's ensuing possession. Choice scored on a 15-yard run two plays later to put the Yellow Jackets ahead for good.
Trailing Miami 16-13 early in the final quarter on Oct. 28, Ball shrugged off a 3-for-16 start passing to complete 8 of 11 for 92 yards on two scoring drives that put his team ahead 23-16. He added a key run during one drive, rushing eight yards on a third-down play. Tech went on to a 30-23 win.
- Trailing N.C. State 23-21 to start the fourth quarter on Nov. 4, Ball led Tech to 10 unanswered points. He had thrown two interceptions earlier in the game that led to 10 Wolfpack points - one of the picks was returned for a touchdown - yet he didn't let the miscues rattle him. Gailey approached the quarterback following the second interception, late in the third quarter, to reassure Ball that the Jackets would win the game. Ball's response: "I know."
Ball has downplayed his pressure performances, despite taking the heat for failures in similar situations in the past. Asked what it felt like to be the hero instead of the goat, he smiled and praised his teammates.
"I'm not a hero," Ball said. "I'm just a guy who does a job. The front five (offensive linemen) are the heroes."
There are no shortage of aces on The Flats these days.
Choice rushed for 100-plus yards four times in a five-game stretch, culminating in the N.C. State win. He ran for a career-high 164 yards on 34 carries in that game.
Wide receiver Calvin Johnson rebounded well from his Clemson shutout. The Tigers held him without a catch, but he had five grabs for 68 yards and a touchdown the next week against Miami, and nine for a career-high 168 yards and two scores versus State.
Then there's the defense. The Yellow Jackets aren't posting the jaw-dropping yardage-allowed statistics they have in recent years, but they held on the goal line in the closing seconds against Maryland, forced four turnovers and recorded six sacks versus Miami, and held State without an offensive touchdown.
Gailey acknowledged that there is a different attitude with this year's team. Defensive end Adamm Oliver gave one reason: All of the current Yellow Jackets are Gailey's recruits. Gailey sold them on him and the program during the recruiting process, and there are no veteran holdovers from former coach George O'Leary's recruiting classes to distract them.
Gailey buys that theory, to an extent.
"If you hang around somebody for four years, you are going to figure it out," Gailey said. "These guys have been around us, and what we are trying to do and what we believe in. What we said in their homes is being said the same way today. You can maintain that consistency through the years, then I think the message does come through. If you're going into somebody's home for four years, you are going to understand what the house rules are."
HOOPS TEAM WHOLE FOR OPENER
Georgia Tech basketball coach Paul Hewitt will have swingman Anthony Morrow and forward Mouhammad Faye available for the Nov. 10 season opener against Elon.
Morrow missed most of preseason practice with a stress fracture in his back but began participating in drills leading up to a Nov. 4 exhibition game against Morehouse.
Hewitt said Morrow will play versus Elon, barring any setbacks. The coach did not say Morrow would start, and with games against Elon, Jackson State and Georgia State to start the season before a trip to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, Hewitt likely will take it slow with his star player.
Faye, a redshirt freshman, has been practicing since the start of November despite undergoing wrist surgery in the late summer. He keeps the wrist heavily taped. He scored 11 points in a 96-52 victory over Morehouse in the exhibition.
The Yellow Jackets' two marquee freshmen, swingman Thaddeus Young and point guard Javaris Crittenton, are integrating quickly.
Young scored a game-high 20 points against Morehouse and likely will be one of the Jackets' starters in the opener. Crittenton will start at the point versus Elon. He had 15 points, eight assists and four steals in the exhibition game.