September 26, 2006
ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech entered ACC play confident, as usual.
Coach Chan Gailey and his players consider themselves contenders for the league title every year. And each season, they prove themselves capable, pulling an upset over a Miami or a Clemson. But the Yellow Jackets also fall victim to ACC parity by losing games in which they are favored.
This year, though, appears different.
The middle-of-the-pack teams that often hand the Jackets an unexpected loss or two -- N.C. State, Virginia, North Carolina -- are struggling against mid-major and even Division I-AA teams. The traditional ACC powers seem vulnerable as well.
"We definitely believe, with the talent we have on our team, we have a chance," fullback Mike Cox said. "With no one, dominant team in the conference, we feel like this is our year."
A stingy defense and a steadily improving offense give Cox and his teammates faith.
Tech's defense impressed the critics by rattling Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn in the opener and holding the Irish to 14 points. The Jackets backed up that performance by keeping Samford out of the end zone in a 38-6 win and limiting Troy's explosive attack in a 35-20 victory. Six of the Trojans' 20 points came against the Yellow Jackets' backups.
An overwhelming pass rush from the front seven has negated the Jackets' inexperience in the secondary. Quinn's happy feet in the pocket have been mirrored in every other game. The Jackets so flustered Virginia quarterback Jameel Sewell, a redshirt freshman who made his starting debut in a 24-7 loss to Tech, that he short-hopped as many passes as he completed and threw two interceptions.
The Tech defense's reaction to giving up the UVa touchdown was a true reflection of its confidence. A turnover by Tech's offense gave the Cavaliers the ball at the 29-yard line. Sewell converted a fourth-down pass for a touchdown, and as the Cavs celebrated the score, several Jackets beat their fists against the ground in disgust, despite the fact that the game was well in hand.
Gailey said the defense wanted a shutout.
"I know that's what our guys were saying at halftime," Gailey said. "They wanted to try and get that."
The offense, meanwhile, grows game by game under the new scheme implemented by coordinator Patrick Nix. Tech scored more points in its first four games (107) than it did in its first five in the last two seasons and its first six in 2003, the season when Gailey took over the play-calling.
The spread scheme takes full advantage of quarterback Reggie Ball's running and passing skills. It also puts star wide receiver Calvin Johnson in better position to make plays.
Ball rushed for 130 yards -- a school record for a quarterback -- against Troy. Johnson caught six passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns versus Virginia.
Nix's scheme differs fundamentally from Gailey's. While Gailey's play-calling was based heavily on down and distance, with an eye toward making a first down, Nix's calls continually test the defense with big plays being the goal. The Yellow Jackets have featured the option, reverses, long passes and even trick plays early this season, and Nix adds to the repertoire each week.
"They continue to get confidence (in the offense)," Nix said. "I'll continue to learn who can do what and what plays are the best and how we need to use this guy or that guy."
The Yellow Jackets can earn their ACC contender status in the coming weeks. They play at Virginia Tech on Sept. 30 and at Clemson two weeks later. Beat the Hokies, and the Jackets take sole possession of first place in the league's Coastal Division. Beat the Hokies and the Tigers, and Georgia Tech becomes the league favorite.
VITAL SIGN: GOOD HEALTH OVERALL
Injuries plagued Georgia Tech in spring practice and again in August but have yet to be a problem since the start of the season. Defensive end Michael Johnson was the only regular to miss more than one of the first four games, and he was back healthy after missing the first two games.
Calvin Johnson gave Tech fans a scare in the Troy game. He was tackled low on a flanker screen and missed several series before returning. His injured quadriceps muscle remained sore the following week, and he was a game-time decision against Virginia.
Much like basketball legend Michael Jordan, who played his best when ill, Johnson had a career night against the Cavaliers.
"Once my adrenaline started rushing, I didn't have to worry about it," he said later. "I didn't feel pain or anything like that."
Many of Tech's ACC rivals have been weakened by injuries. Clemson has four banged-up starters on defense, two of which likely will miss the rest of the season. Florida State lost a star defensive tackle to a season-ending injury. No ACC team can afford injuries less than Tech, which lacks depth at linebacker, quarterback and wide receiver.
Injuries have sidetracked the Jackets' contention hopes in recent years. Ball suffered a case of viral meningitis last season, during the week before the Virginia Tech game. His fatigue no doubt contributed to the 51-7 loss. Defensive end Eric Henderson battled ankle problems throughout his career. Tailback P.J. Daniels was prone to nagging injuries over the past two years.
The absence of lingering injuries -- let alone significant ones -- a month into this season bodes well for the Yellow Jackets.
SKEPTICS FORGET ROAD SUCCESS
Georgia Tech's skeptics point out that the Jackets have yet to play on the road this season and can't truly be considered ACC contenders until they win in a hostile environment.
The problem with that theory is that the Yellow Jackets have done their most impressive work away from Bobby Dodd Stadium in recent years. They beat Miami in the Orange Bowl last season and stunned SEC power Auburn on its home field. Tech rallied to beat Clemson in Death Valley two years ago.
Five of Tech's eight remaining games are on the road, but only one of the opponents' venues -- Georgia's Sanford Stadium -- can be called a house of horrors for the Yellow Jackets. They lost 51-7 in Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium last year, but that defeat had much more to do with the Hokies' suffocating defense than the maroon- and orange-clad crowd.
A healthy Georgia Tech is a tough team to intimidate. Ball is a four-year starter, the offensive linemen are all returnees, and the defense is stocked with veterans.
That experience also is why the Yellow Jackets stand a better chance of handling the pressures that come with success this season than they have in previous years. That is the kind of confidence the Jackets truly need.