October 28, 2002 ATLANTA Maybe, just maybe, supporters of Georgia Tech will calm down. All it took was a two-game losing streak to send Tech fans jumping overboard. Message boards and radio talk shows were abuzz with criticism, even suggestions for the program's next head coach and/or offensive coordinator. They were blasting the Yellow Jackets' recruiting strategy, complaining that no top high schoolers were talking about Tech and that the coaching staff hadn't yet finalized its top targets.
Fans even were invoking the dreaded Bill Lewis era when referring to first-year head coach Chan Gailey. Lewis, who went 11-19 from 1992-94, is considered the low point of recent Tech coaches, with his three consecutive losing seasons, including an embarrassing 1-10 campaign (0-8 ACC) in 1994.
That's what Tech fans can do now. After holding off yet another Virginia comeback attempt, the Yellow Jackets were a win away from becoming bowl-eligible. Finally, it was OK to come back in from the ledge.
This was a must win, quarterback A.J. Suggs said after the Virginia game.
It was a must because the schedule only gets tougher. It was a must because, after two losses, the vultures were circling. It was a must because the frowns needed to be taken off Tech players' faces. It also was a must to calm down those rabid fans.
Offensive Changes Help Suggs
It's been a long season for Suggs, a junior transfer from Tennessee. A tough, intelligent competitor, he has been booed at home in two games. He struggled in comeback attempts against Clemson (intercepted on Tech's last drive) and Wake Forest (fumble, interception in the fourth quarter).
All along, Gailey and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien have backed Suggs, asking everyone for some time. Suggs ran the Tech scout team in practices last year, played only seven games with the Volunteers in 2000 and redshirted in 1999. That time off has complicated his development this season.
But Suggs slowly and quietly is growing into the efficient type of quarterback Tech needs. Against Maryland, he completed 28 of 45 passes for 272 yards. While the game was a rout, Tech effectively ran the spread offense with four- and five-receiver sets.
In the 10 days between the Maryland and Virginia games, O'Brien installed more of the spread and no-huddle packages. With Suggs running the offense with help from his wristband, Tech chewed up yardage and confused Virginia's defense. Utilizing seven receivers, Suggs completed 26 of 41 passes for 220 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed for 30 yards on five carries, most of them quarterback draws out of the shotgun. Suggs said after the game that the spread and no-huddle packages have fewer plays and allow him to find a rhythm more easily.
It was the right move. Tech is down to its seventh-string tailback, walk-on P.J. Daniels. He's a tough runner, but he began the season behind Tony Hollings (knee), Sidney Ford (concussions), Gordon Clinkscale (third-down back), Jermaine Hatch (knee) and true freshmen Ajenavi Eziemefe and Michael Sampson. With most of those rushers injured or ineffective, Tech's best plan is to put more receivers on the field.
Seniors Kerry Watkins and Will Glover are the team's best big-play threats. Clinkscale, a hybrid rusher-receiver, has found his niche in the spread offense, taking inside handoffs and catching balls out of the backfield. Jonathan Smith and developing sophomore Levon Thomas, who impressed O'Brien with his play against Maryland, are more than capable. Tech has weapons at wide receiver and finally is using them.
The spread offense also has helped the Tech running game, giving Clinkscale, in particular, space to run. Plus, Tech doesn't have a true fullback. Instead of using tight end John Paul Foschi at fullback, the Yellow Jackets can go to a one-back set and not lose anything.
In this evolving season, other changes have been made. O'Brien has moved back to the coaches' box upstairs, detaching himself from the emotion of the game and opening up his view of the field. In the first two games with him in the box, Tech gained 916 total yards.
Gailey originally suggested O'Brien go to the box when he first took the Tech job, but O'Brien who sat in the box as running backs coach but not as offensive coordinator resisted. He finally agreed to the change before the Maryland game, and it's tough to say the move hasn't worked.
With O'Brien in the box, running backs coach Patrick Nix has moved down to the field. Free of any play-calling duties, Nix can be an enthusiastic cheerleader on the sidelines. Against Virginia, Gailey who concerns himself with the offense far more than the defense often was in the offensive team huddle on the sidelines, providing tips and encouragement.
After Adjustment Period, A Bowl
As the latest adjustments on the fly indicate, the coaching staff still is getting acclimated to one another and to the situation. The last time Gailey coached a college team was 1993, at tiny Samford. The last time before that was 1984, when he guided Troy State to a Division II national title.
Gailey said all along there would be an adjustment period. He said it would take nearly a year for everything to be running smoothly. Nobody wanted to hear that, of course, and after the Yellow Jackets got off to a hot start nobody was listening anyhow.
Hence the calls for Gailey's head just seven games into the season. This despite injuries that have robbed Tech of its best defensive player (defensive end Greg Gathers) and its best offensive player (Hollings).
There's no guarantee that Tech will reach its sixth consecutive bowl game, which would tie the school record. With N.C. State, Florida State and Georgia on the schedule, November could be a brutal month. But if the Jackets can beat Duke, they'll be eligible.
Just where the Yellow Jackets might end up is anybody's guess. Representatives of the $750,000 Tangerine Bowl were in attendance for Tech's game with Virginia. The Orlando-based game matches an ACC team against a Big 12 team. The first-year Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte also remains a possibility. That one, played on Dec. 28, matches an ACC team against a Big East opponent. A return trip to the Seattle Bowl also is conceivable, although that's wouldn't be the first choice of anyone in the Tech camp.
Reaching a bowl any bowl is now the Yellow Jackets' main focus. An extra couple of weeks of practice would be the best thing that could happen to this program. It would give Gailey and his staff a little more time to come together. It would give all the underclassmen and Tech has been playing a ton of them extra practice time.
Gailey has said the Yellow Jackets would accept any bowl invitation. It also might keep those fans from jumping off the ledge, especially if archrival Georgia keeps winning.