December 5, 2006
ATLANTA -- For all the positives Georgia Tech can take from its most successful football season of this century, a negative aftertaste will remain.
The Yellow Jackets cannot offset the sting of two late-season defeats -- a 15-12 loss to rival Georgia, and a 9-6 stumble against Wake Forest in the ACC title game -- even by winning their bowl game and finishing with 10 wins.
The Jackets' offense and quarterback Reggie Ball, surprisingly efficient and even prolific at times during a 9-2 start, reverted to form in the season's two biggest games. Tech scored one touchdown and Ball committed five turnovers while completing 15 of 53 passes in the Georgia and Wake losses.
One of Ball's giveaways, a fumble in the Georgia game, was returned for a touchdown and was the difference in the three-point loss. Against Wake, the QB failed on three fourth-down conversions, throwing an interception on one, missing a wide-open receiver on another, getting stuffed for no gain on a third.
"We just missed a couple of plays," Tech coach Chan Gailey said. "That was uncharacteristic of our football team throughout the year."
Indeed, Tech played like a championship-caliber team in the first 11 weeks. The Yellow Jackets played Notre Dame tough in the opener, losing 14-10, and defeated Virginia Tech on the road. They rebounded from a humbling loss to Clemson at midseason by defeating Miami to all but clinch the Coastal Division title a week later.
Ball played like a veteran quarterback, minimizing his mistakes and rallying Tech to three fourth-quarter comeback wins in league play. The defense improved as the season wore on, allowing just four touchdowns -- three in a runaway victory against Duke -- in the final five games.
The Jackets, plagued by letdowns and losses to inferior opponents in Gailey's first four seasons, appeared to have been replaced by a poised, veteran team.
Then came the showdown with the rival Bulldogs. Not only was Ball bad, but his wide receivers dropped the few passes he threw on target. The defense allowed a Georgia team quarterbacked by a true freshman to march 64 yards for the winning score while chewing more than seven minutes of the fourth quarter off the clock.
A week wasn't long enough for the Jackets to recover, either. Tech crossed midfield five times in 12 possessions against Wake, and both Johnson and tailback Tashard Choice gained 100 or more yards. The Jackets settled for two field goals, though, and left Choice and the offense feeling as if they let the defense down.
"I'd be upset if I played defense," Choice said. "They played their tails off. Those guys did everything they could do."
The Wake loss left many Yellow Jackets in a daze. Asked which bowl they wanted to play in, many said they didn't care. Even senior linebacker KaMichael Hall struggled to keep his composure.
"It gets a little redundant to keep doing the same thing, to keep playing hard and playing hard and still coming up short," Hall said. "It defeats the purpose of going out there almost. It's very irritating. You give everything you have every play and every down, and you lose. Some of the seniors, we need to talk and keep the spirits up. We're still going to a bowl game, but I don't blame guys for feeling the way they do."
BASKETBALL VETERANS FIND ROLES
Coach Paul Hewitt couldn't find the right button to push with the Tech basketball team as it struggled to an 11-17 record a year ago.
Youth and a lack of depth were the overwhelming reasons for the team's season-long stumbles, which included losses to Illinois-Chicago and Georgia, as well as a 10th-place league finish.
Yet Hewitt pledged last March that his incoming recruiting class would give him more options -- more buttons to push -- this season. A quarter of the way into the schedule, he appears correct.
Tech entered December ranked in the Top 25, its only loss coming to UCLA in the Maui Invitational championship. The Bruins moved to No. 1 in the coaches' poll five days after defeating Tech.
More importantly for the Yellow Jackets, the veteran players already have found their individual roles and are meshing with freshman stars Javaris Crittenton, Thaddeus Young and Zach Peacock.
Senior Mario West continues to be a spark off the bench with his hustle and defensive play, but he's also shown the ability to run the point when Crittenton goes through a freshman's usual sloppy spells with the basketball. West posted a 3-1 assist-turnover ratio in November and was instrumental in Maui wins against Purdue and Memphis in relief of Crittenton.
Sophomore Lewis Clinch is the go-to scorer. Hewitt claims seven Yellow Jackets can score 20 points or more on a given night, but Clinch has shown consistency. He can score from the perimeter or off the dribble. He is Tech's leading scorer and has yet to score fewer than 14 points in a game.
Junior Anthony Morrow is steadily playing his way into shape, after missing much of the preseason with a stress fracture in his back. His conditioning has hurt his shooting stroke so far, although he did hit four three-pointers in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge victory over Penn State. Once he gets his legs back, he will be instant offense off the bench.
Junior Jeremis Smith has a fellow bruiser underneath now in Peacock, and Peacock's shooting range -- he is accurate beyond the three-point line -- opens up room for Smith inside. Smith shot 65 percent in Tech's first seven games and grabbed eight or more rebounds in four of those.
Junior Ra'Sean Dickey responded positively to Hewitt's decision to start Peacock ahead of him. Dickey averaged eight points and eight rebounds in the Yellow Jackets' first five games. But Dickey showed he hasn't completely shaken his reputation for giving inconsistent effort, with off nights in a loss to UCLA and the Penn State game. Dickey took three shots and grabbed four rebounds in those two games combined.
One area where Hewitt needs more out of his veterans is on defense. Opponents average better than 70 points per game against the Yellow Jackets, and those teams that specialize in good ball movement get lots of open shots -- even easy shots -- versus the Jackets.
The defensive deficiencies are not a surprise, not with three freshmen in the starting lineup and a fourth, Mouhammad Faye, in the playing rotation. But Hewitt wants better play from his veterans, Clinch especially, as the rookies develop.
"It's not that I don't appreciate his offense, I do. I'm not taking it for granted," Hewitt said of Clinch. "But if you're going to be a consistent basketball team, the scoring is really irrelevant."
Tech's favorable schedule allows time for improvement. The toughest game on the Jackets' December schedule is Vanderbilt on the road. They should enter league play in January with at least 11 victories.