September 16, 2002
ATLANTA - Georgia Tech knew its ACC opener with Clemson would be a benchmark for this season, but the Yellow Jackets had no idea they'd leave the game with so many disturbing questions.
After a 24-19 loss, Tech had concerns about all phases of the game, including coaching. The Yellow Jackets said all season that the mistakes they glossed over in victories against Vanderbilt and at Connecticut would come back to haunt them against a better opponent. It's one thing to talk the talk, but against Clemson, Tech again made an assortment of mistakes - mistakes that indeed proved costly.
Tech's offense consistently left itself in impossible situations, the byproduct of missed blocking assignments, bad penalties and a failure to convert on third down.
Quarterback A.J. Suggs was sacked five times and made poor decisions with the ball, which was unusual for the typically dependable signal-caller. The numbers (17-31, 201 yards) looked good, but Suggs contributed to Tech's stop-and-start offense. He got tagged with an intentional grounding call and badly misfired on the Yellow Jackets' last chance, throwing an interception on Tech's last possession.
Despite predictions that the Tech coaching staff would unleash backup quarterback Damarius Bilbo in a Kordell Stewart-type Slash role, the redshirt freshman did not see the field against Clemson. Soggy field conditions and an early deficit quickly eliminated any possibility of using Bilbo, who frustrated the coaching staff in practice and during his game appearances in the first two weeks.
So quarterback, thought to be a strength entering the season with the steady Suggs and explosive Bilbo, is now a one-horse show. Suggs is Tech's quarterback. If Bilbo plays, he likely will be a part of trick plays or at wide receiver.
With plenty of other capable receivers on hand, Suggs and the passing game should be able to back defenses off the line of scrimmage. But Clemson stacked the line, and Tech's passing game couldn't back them off. Suggs won't win many games solely with his arm, but he shouldn't lose many, either.
All of which leaves much of the offensive load on tailback Tony Hollings. A converted safety, he proved against Clemson that his speed and power will work in the ACC. He broke a 72-yard run on his first carry and spent the rest of the game bouncing off the first would-be tackler.
His performance begged the question: Why didn't Hollings get the ball more? Even at 23 carries, it seemed like Tech's most productive offensive player didn't get the ball enough.
By comparison, Suggs threw 31 passes - trying to get Clemson out of its eight- and nine-man fronts - so Hollings could run. The junior tailback was split out as a wide receiver in the second half and caught two passes, as Tech struggled to get him in open space.
Hollings, who rushed for more than 140 yards in each of his first three games at tailback, should become the focal point of Tech's offense. With converted tight end John Paul Foschi moving to fullback and replacing Jimmy Dixon in the lineup, Tech took another big step toward an offense geared toward power running. With a massive left side of the offensive line and Foschi leading the way, running Hollings appears to be Tech's most consistent offensive option.
Coverage Skills Remain Suspect
The Clemson game didn't just raise doubts about the Tech offense.
Despite missing their starting tailback and fullback, the Tigers rushed for 195 yards. With a right tackle making his first career start, the Tigers neutralized Tech's defensive ends - including All-America candidate Greg Gathers. Quarterback Willie Simmons rolled out whenever he wanted to, putting pressure on Tech's linebackers to defend against his scrambling. With the underneath coverages in pursuit, Simmons found eight different receivers for 176 yards.
Gathers did not have a tackle, raising concerns that he's not at 100 percent following a summer kidney problem. Tech coach Chan Gailey said earlier in the season that Gathers still wasn't in shape. Watching Gathers chase but never catch Simmons, who lacks Woody Dantzler-type scrambling skills, did nothing to alleviate those doubts.
Tech's nickel and dime coverage was exposed as well. Clemson spread Tech out with four-receiver sets, leaving 5-7 nickel back Kelly Rhino matched up against taller Tiger receivers. Simmons often looked for that matchup. After Simmons connected with Tony Elliott for a touchdown over Rhino, Tech began to roll its safeties to Rhino's side. But without safety help, the other corners backed off, leaving a cushion for Simmons to hit receivers on out patterns.
Rhino, a tenacious player, made a stellar interception on a ball intended for Derrick Hamilton, but with BYU's multiple-receiver offense coming to town, Tech had problems to correct in the defensive backfield. Backup cornerbacks Albert Poree and Reuben Houston, neither of whom recorded a tackle against Clemson, must be able to step on the field and play.
Touted Special Teams Struggling
With the offense and defense carrying question marks, the Yellow Jackets needed their special teams - their highly touted special teams - to create difference-making plays. They did just that, but the difference-making plays hurt Tech.
Poree backed into the end zone while trying to down a punt. If he hadn't continued to retreat, Tech would have pinned Clemson at the one-yard line. A halo violation on another punt moved Clemson from its 10 to the 20, again erasing a defensive advantage. Tech allowed Hamilton's 79-yard punt return to set up a touchdown in the last minute of the second quarter.
A poor snap on Georgia Tech's first PAT cost the Yellow Jackets a point, one they'd chase for the rest of the game. If not for that miss, Tech could have gone for one after scoring in the fourth quarter. If kicker Luke Manget, who has connected on 142 straight extra point attempts, had made those two - he didn't get to kick the first one, as he picked up the loose ball and tried to run - Tech wouldn't have needed a touchdown in the final minute. Instead, the Yellow Jackets would have been down 24-21 and just needing a field goal to tie.
If, if, if. That's what the Yellow Jackets face, a bunch of ifs. And a bunch of questions.
Gailey called a timeout late in the second quarter to save time for Tech's offense. But by doing so, he gave the Tigers more time to think about a fourth-down situation. After originally sending out their field goal team, the Tigers put their offense out there, and a Simmons push-pass resulted in a touchdown. With the extra time Gailey saved, Tech completed one pass to Jonathan Smith for no yards.
After two weeks in which the Yellow Jackets looked like world-beaters, in which Gailey said you've got to be happy with 2-0, Tech suddenly faced a crossroads. Players recently admitted that they never really recovered from last year's loss to Clemson, one that followed a three-week layoff after the events of Sept. 11. After Tech's game with Florida State was cancelled, North Carolina upset the Seminoles in a game Tech thought it would have had as its big win. Meanwhile, the overtime loss to the Tigers ended Tech's big dreams.
Gailey can't let that happen again.