By Dave Glenn and Staff
November 22, 2006
ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech coasted home in the Coastal Division.
In relative terms, anyway. While the Atlantic Division came down to the last weekend of the regular season, the Yellow Jackets all but locked up the Coastal a month early.
Tech needed to win only two of its last three ACC games -- against the league's three worst teams (N.C. State, North Carolina and Duke) -- after defeating Miami on Oct. 28.
The Jackets swept those last three games to finish 7-1 in the ACC, but they looked sharp only against the hapless Blue Devils. Tech needed a fourth-quarter rally to defeat the Wolfpack and escaped Chapel Hill with a 7-0 victory.
With an emotional game against rival Georgia on Thanksgiving weekend, the Yellow Jackets' mindset could be a vital factor going into the ACC championship game.
"You're just trying to win the next one," Tech coach Chan Gailey said after the Duke win. "Whoever is on the schedule, wherever it is, you're trying to go win the next one. These guys want to win the next one."
Focus has been a Georgia Tech strength all season. The Yellow Jackets avoided the inexplicable losses that have plagued them in years past, winning all the games they were supposed to win to post their best ACC finish since the 1998 team led by quarterback Joe Hamilton shared the league title.
The Georgia game should only sharpen their senses. The Jackets have lost five straight to their rival. A win would launch a confident team into Jacksonville. A loss could send an angry and determined bunch there.
Big-game pressure doesn't seem to affect Tech. The Yellow Jackets defeated Virginia Tech on the road and Miami in the division pseudo-clincher. They rallied to defeat Maryland, Miami and N.C. State.
The Jackets lost to Notre Dame and Clemson in prime-time showdowns, but the Irish simply out-played them in the second half of a 14-10 victory, and the Tigers turned in their best performance of the year in a 31-7 win. Clemson used all of its energy to do it, too, as evidenced by its losses to Virginia Tech and Maryland the next two weeks.
Georgia Tech is a savvy, veteran team. The first-team defense went two games (N.C. State, UNC) without allowing a touchdown and allowed opponents into the end zone just three times after the humbling Clemson loss on Oct. 21.
The punt coverage team is Tech's most overlooked weapon. Behind the long and high kicks of punter Durant Brooks, the team's net punting average is 40.3 yards, best in the nation.
The defense and special teams together take the pressure off quarterback Reggie Ball and the offense.
First-year offensive coordinator Patrick Nix has shown patience and flexibility this year. His spread scheme looked explosive at the season's midpoint, putting up 38 points in a runaway against Virginia Tech.
Ball got hurt the next week, injuring his leg on a run against Maryland. Nix responded by essentially removing the designed quarterback runs from his game plan. Ball averaged 11 carries in Tech's first seven games, only to carry it 17 times combined in the Jackets' last four ACC contests.
Nix adjusted his scheme by making tailback Tashard Choice a bigger part of the offense. Choice rushed for 138 yards in the game where Ball suffered his injury, and he ran for 100-plus in three of the next four. He recorded more than 30 carries in victories over State and Carolina and had 18 at halftime against Duke. Choice did not play in the second half versus the Blue Devils, but he went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season in the game.
Ball is healing, too, and could be back to midseason form by the ACC title game. The limp he showed at times against Clemson and UNC is gone, and after completing just 34 percent of his passes in the four games following his injury, he hit on 7 of 13 for three touchdowns in a half against Duke.
Improved accuracy could make Tech's offense prolific again. Star wide receiver Calvin Johnson is approaching 1,000 yards receiving, while his counterpart on the other side of the field, James Johnson, looks like a go-to receiver as well.
James Johnson caught a touchdown pass in four of Tech's last five ACC games, including two balls he tipped away from defenders to make the catch.
"After that touchdown he bobbled a few times, I told a couple of people on the sideline, I think this guy might be pretty good,'" Ball said of James Johnson.
Critics finally are saying the same about the Yellow Jackets.
DEACONS: GOOD ENOUGH, TIMELY
WINSTON-SALEM -- What a good year to be good enough for Wake Forest.
Not to denigrate the history-making season that the Demon Deacons have put together this year, but their timing was perfect. The non-conference schedule was flimsy, and the ACC was pretty weak, when you get right down to it.
The league's best non-conference win heading into Thanksgiving was Boston College topping BYU. The only other non-conference win that even registered -- barely -- on the national radar was Miami squeaking past Houston.
So Wake's nine wins heading into the Maryland matchup shook out like this: one over a good team (Boston College), one over a mediocre team (Florida State), one over a Division I-AA school (Liberty), and six over teams that had a combined six wins in their respective conferences.
Yes, the Deacons still had to win the games, and they've proven they could do it against all sorts of circumstances.
But the weakness of the opponents allowed Wake to hide a lot of problems, many brought on by injuries. Change the schedule to include Nebraska and Navy (as the 2007 slate will), and put a program such as FSU at its usual strength, and it's easy to see how Wake could have been a .500 team this season.
Why? Well, it's certainly something you wouldn't expect under coach Jim Grobe, but the Deacons can't run the ball.
Sure, Wake has struggled against the pass at times, and injuries have hurt various parts of the defense. But it's the running game that has been the soft spot.
First, Micah Andrews went down against Connecticut, lost for the season with a knee injury. But even Andrews wasn't getting the job done. After running well against a weak Syracuse defense, he gained 114 yards on 38 carries against Duke and Connecticut, a 3.0-yard average.
Grobe believes that Andrews is a tough runner, but that he's a half-step slower than the coach would like. The zone-blocking run scheme relies on a back to quickly decide on a direction and burst through it, as opposed to one who can pound behind big blockers.
Wake hid its problems against a weak Mississippi defense and Liberty. But it was obvious to Grobe that De'Angelo Bryant, who seems tight end slow at times, wasn't the answer. He's done his best not to play Bryant much since.
Grobe next went to Kevin Harris, a redshirt freshman who may not quite have the speed, either, but he makes quick decisions. Much like Andrews, he would have been good enough to at least keep opponents respectful. But he, too, went down with a knee injury, then a scary concussion in a brief return against Virginia Tech.
That left Wake in a desperate spot. With Grobe not wanting to rely on Bryant or little-used Travo Woods, he converted his leading receiver, Kenneth Moore, to running back. Moore, a former prep running back, was OK as a runner, mainly because he had some speed. But he ran fairly straight up and didn't really demonstrate any burst when he saw a hole. Wake also re-tooled the running game to include more touches for the receivers, which worked well.
But the additional contact eventually felled Moore with a shoulder injury, leaving Grobe to try Woods against Virginia Tech. Woods was awful, dancing more than running, and Tech didn't have to respect him. In addition, teammates said he didn't block well, which severely hurt the wide receiver runs.
So by the end of the 11th game, Grobe had gone through five running backs, none with particular success. He watched his running backs fumble more than ever, and he also had managed to injure Moore, his leading receiver and one of his kick returners. He would have added to that list a burned redshirt halfway through the season to one of his top recruits, but Josh Adams hurt his back so Grobe couldn't do it.
It did make you wonder what the season would have been like if L.J. Flintall hadn't run into off-the-field trouble. Flintall, who would have been a redshirt freshman this fall, was 5-10, 180 pounds and a track star -- almost the perfect Grobe profile. But he wasn't around to fill the hole.
Grobe also has had to make things work without his third-best blocker, tackle Arby Jones, for a good part of the season because of a knee injury.
It's perhaps more frustrating for Grobe than other coaches because so much of what he does is predicated on a good running game, a part of the program that he's made one of the nation's best over his six seasons. A good running attack shortens the game, wears down opponents, keeps them off-balance and lessens the chance for turnovers.
"It's extremely frustrating," senior tackle Steve Vallos said. "When you can establish a running game and the defense can't stop it, when you can start running on first down, it just makes the whole game a lot easier for the offense. We really have done that too many times this year, and that's really hurt us."
This in a year when Grobe's only other choice was to turn to a quarterback who had never taken a college snap heading into the season.
It's all the more reason to say that timing is everything. The Deacons certainly picked the right year to be good enough.
EAGLES' DREAMS STILL REACHABLE
CHESTNUT HILL -- All Boston College could do against Maryland on Nov. 18 was win -- and then hope for the best.
The math was simple. The Eagles had to win their last two games and hope Wake Forest lost its last two, the first of those at home to a Virginia Tech team BC had beaten handily.
Well, BC took care of business in the afternoon, scoring three defensive touchdowns in an easy Senior Day win. The Eagles then went back to their dorms and watched Wake get beaten, badly, by Tech.
So the Eagles headed for Miami to try to do something the program hadn't done in 22 years, since Doug Flutie's Hail Mary pass -- win at Miami. This time, though, they would fly down there to play a demoralized Hurricanes team that was set to play perhaps its final game under coach Larry Coker.
A win on Thanksgiving would put BC, which finished its first perfect home season since 1994, back in waiting mode. Only this time, the Eagles would have to wait two days until Wake played Maryland. A BC loss at Miami and a Maryland win over Wake would give the Terps the Atlantic crown.
Last year, the Eagles, in their first season in the ACC, tied for the Atlantic title but lost the tiebreaker to Florida State because they'd lost to the Seminoles.
"Once again, we're in the second year of a five- to 10-year experiment. Who knows how this thing is going to go down the road?" BC coach Tom O'Brien said. "But for all of those who thought we wouldn't survive (in the ACC) or be part of anything, it's been a pretty exciting two years for us."
The handling of a Maryland team that had won five straight brought the Eagles their third consecutive nine-win season. It's the first time BC has won nine games for three years in a row. But it's clear that nine is not the place to stop for these kids.
"It's not really about the number," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "It's about where this win would put us and what this win would mean. We didn't set out to win nine games. We set out to win the ACC, and that's open."
Linebacker Jolonn Dunbar, who had a 94-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against Maryland last season (in his first career start), had two of them this time around, as he became the fourth college player ever to return two fumbles for scores in the same game. He's a strong candidate for All-ACC.
Later, Dunbar was smiling as he spoke about the big plays he's made this season -- the long runs against Maryland, the blocked extra point against Clemson that allowed the Eagles to escape with a double-overtime win, the stop on a fourth-and-goal at the BC two-yard line against Duke.
"I guess we need to make that a statistical category," Dunbar said.
Stats? He led the Eagles with a career-high 14 tackles against Maryland. He was everywhere, scoring twice in just over the first three minutes of the game.
"I think Jolonn likes playing against Maryland," O'Brien said. "He had that break-out performance against Maryland (last year), and I think that boosted his confidence. He's the heart and soul of our defense."
That's one of the reasons Dunbar, only a junior, was tabbed as one of three team captains this season.
Lost in the excitement of the defense scoring three times in the Maryland win was Ryan going over the 4,000-yard passing mark.
Meanwhile, a new BC tradition continued against the Terps. Last year, senior Jazzmen Williams shed his No. 4 jersey and wore No. 31 for the final game. He was the winner of the Jay McGillis Scholarship, which honors the former BC defensive back who died of leukemia. This year, safety Ryan Glasper, the winner of this year's award (given to the player who best exemplifies McGillis' qualities), donned No. 31 instead of his No. 24 for his last home game.
All around, it was a big day for the seniors. Receiver Tony Gonzalez had four catches for 76 yards and a touchdown. Guard Josh Beekman (whose mom sang the national anthem) moved to center for the injured Kevin Sheridan and played well. Some believe that Beekman's height (6-1) makes him a better pro prospect at center, a position he says he enjoys.
O'Brien said of the seniors: "What a great group of kids to be around."
TERPS' STATEMENT ALREADY MADE
COLLEGE PARK -- While some message-board maniacs went into meltdown mode after Maryland was blown out by Boston College, most reasonable fans took the disappointing result in stride.
It's hard for Maryland followers to complain too much at this point in a season that has been a surprising -- if not downright shocking -- success. The Terrapins have far exceeded expectations and have answered a lot of nagging questions about the direction of the program.
To be sure, getting whacked in Chestnut Hill with so much on the line was a major setback. Maryland controlled its own destiny in terms of reaching the ACC championship game and came out completely flat, committing two costly fumbles that were returned for touchdowns in the opening four minutes.
"We didn't have a very good game," coach Ralph Friedgen said. "I didn't do a very good job of getting our kids ready to play. With a game that had this amount of magnitude to it, importance to the season, it's very disappointing."
In some respects, a loss like this was long overdue. Maryland had been living on the edge all season, winning games with smoke and mirrors while being beaten in most of the key statistical categories.
Maryland's remarkable five-game winning streak was built through minimizing mistakes, capitalizing on opportunities, making key plays at crucial moments, and limiting opponents to touchdowns instead of field goals.
At some point, that formula was going to fell apart, and it all went haywire at BC. The Terps committed three costly turnovers and did not force any, dropped four potential touchdown passes, and saw their bend-but-don't-break defense finally snap.
"We beat ourselves today," tailback Lance Ball said. "That's something we had not been doing the last five games."
Maryland still could wind up in the ACC championship game by beating Wake Forest and having BC lose at Miami. Some fans were wondering whether another lopsided loss in the season finale would drop the Terps to a "shabby" bowl, but does that really matter in the grand scheme of things?
Regardless of what happens from here, Maryland has put together a tremendous bounce-back season, returned to the bowl cycle and put some shine back on a program that had been tarnished by back-to-back 5-6 campaigns.
There were numerous positive signs during the five consecutive victories, which came by a total of 13 points. By far the most important was the evidence that these Terps finally had learned how to win, showing the heart and toughness to capture the key moments of close games.
Also encouraging is the fact that Maryland appears much-improved along both lines. Any good program is built from the inside-out, and the Terps have done a better job of winning the battles in the trenches.
Defensive coordinator Chris Cosh has been particularly pleased with the development of junior nose tackles Carlos Feliciano and Dre Moore. Both have stepped up strong in terms of taking on double-teams and holding the point of attack.
Sophomore end Jeremy Navarre rebounded from a tough start and recorded 17 tackles (4.5 for loss) and three sacks during a key three-game span. Navarre, who is tied for second on the team in tackles for loss, also blocked the potential game-winning field goal against Florida State.
"I went from being the worst defensive end in the ACC to being a decent one in the span of a few weeks," Navarre said. "I knew I had to do my job better in order to help the team."
Linebackers Wesley Jefferson and Erin Henderson must not have liked the critical assessment of their abilities that was written here and elsewhere early in the season. Both have stepped up strong and rank among the ACC leaders in total tackles. They will be back to anchor the defense next season.
Meanwhile, Friedgen noted the emergence of sophomore offensive linemen Edwin Williams (center), Jared Gaither (tackle), Dane Randolph (tackle) and Jaimie Thomas (guard). Williams, pushed around early in the season, has gotten sturdier. Thomas was pushing Donnie Woods for playing time prior to the latter's injury. Gaither, a massive 6-9, 350-pounder, has evolved into the type of dominating presence the staff expected. Randolph has played extremely well in relief of Gaither and senior Stephon Heyer.
Those four sophomores, along with juniors Woods and Andrew Crummey, form a nice nucleus of blockers for next season. Junior tailbacks Ball and Keon Lattimore have combined for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns. Having both back next season behind an experienced line bodes well for the running game.
What blowout losses to West Virginia and Boston College showed is that Maryland still has a long way to go. But the rest of the season has brought mostly good news, and there may be more to come in December.
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