Nov. 28, 2006
ATLANTA – Twenty-second ranked Georgia Tech, in search of its first Atlantic Coast Conference title since 1998, will face No. 16 Wake Forest in the leagues championship game on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla. The game will be nationally televised on ABC (WSB-TV in Atlanta).
“Usually this is a week we’ve had off and this is a week we’ve been able to take advantage and rest, and just get away from football,” said Joe Anoai. “That’s not the case this year and we’re very excited about that.”
Tech (9-3, 7-1 ACC) is coming off a hard-fought 15-12 loss to archrival Georgia. Junior running back Tashard Choice carried the ball 23 times for 146 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown. Choice has topped 100 yards in five straight games and seven of his last eight. He is the ACC’s leading rusher and ranks 15th in the nation, averaging 100.3 yards per game, including 110.3 yards in ACC games on the ground.
The Demon Deacons (10-2, 6-2 ACC) earned a spot in the championship game by defeating Maryland 38-24, in College Park, Md. last Saturday. The Deacons rushed for 296 yards and gained 421 total yards in the win. Junior running back Kenneth Moore carried the ball 27 times for 165 yards and a score.
The Jackets hold a 20-7 lead in the series with Wake Forest, including a 30-17 Tech victory on Nov. 5, 2005, in Atlanta. Georgia Tech has won four of the last five and eight of the last 10 encounters.
“It’s obviously a completely different team,” said Andrew Gardner of Wake Forest. “The Wake team we saw last year, I mean I don’t know what their record was but they didn’t go to a bowl game and this one is 10-and-2. Obviously they’ve got things going right in that program and they’ve found a way to win.”
Senior Reggie Ball will make his 49th career start in the championship game, a school record for starts by a quarterback. He will hope to guide the Tech to its third ACC crown. Ball leads the ACC with 20 touchdown passes, six more than any other ACC quarterback. He has also thrown 15 touchdown passes in ACC games.
Wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the only three-time all-ACC first team selection in school history, is currently third in the nation with 13 touchdown catches, a Tech school record. He also leads the ACC in receiving yards (899) and ranks second with 59 receptions. Johnson’s running mate, James Johnson has 36 catches on the season for 528 yards and six scores. The two Johnsons have accounted for 95 of Tech’s 146 pass completions.
“In my opinion, he’s gotten better every week,” said Tech coach Chan Gailey of James Johnson. “He really has. He probably has made as big a jump as anybody from the beginning of the year to the end in terms of learning his position, doing a good job, set guys up, win one-on-ones. I’m really proud for him.”
“Having James and Calvin is huge, because if a team only has to shut down one guy, that can completely shut down your passing game and that’s not good,” added Gardner. “You need to have that second guy so they can’t always focus on the one guy. We can always burn them with our second guy.”
On defense, the Jackets are led by first team all-ACC defensive tackle Anoai and safety Jamal Lewis. Anoai has recorded 32 tackles this season, including six tackles for loss and three-and-a-half sacks. Lewis is second on the team with three interceptions and third in tackles with 65. The Tech defense ranks 11th in the nation in rushing defense, eighth in pass efficiency defense and 20th in total defense.
Tech’s defense will look to stop freshman quarterback Riley Skinner and the Deacs offense. Skinner leads the ACC in pass efficiency (142.1) and completion percentage (67.3). He is one of only two freshman quarterbacks in the nation to have won nine games as a starter this season. Skinner is protected by Steve Vallos, the first team all-ACC offensive tackle. Vallos has played 709 snaps with only three missed assignments this year. Vallos has also helped the running game, opening holes for running backs Moore and Kevin Harris, who have each rushed for over 390 yards this year.
“The thing you have to worry about with Wake is that they’re trying to run the ball horizontally,” said Gailey. “They are speed to the corners trying to get outside. Then when you get caught up in that is when they throw it down the field to (Willie) Idlette or one of their other guys. They catch you off-guard with all that sideways stuff, then they run North and South or they split that big fullback up the middle. They’re one of the few teams in the country that get you thinking sideways, and then you have to worry about North and South. They’re unique in that respect, and they have such great speed you have to honor that.”
The Demon Deacon defense is directed by junior linebacker Jon Abbate, the eighth-leading tackler in the ACC with 90 tackles, including four tackles for loss, three pass break-ups and two sacks. Senior free safety Josh Gattis is the only player in the ACC with at least five interceptions and 70 tackles. His five interceptions ranks third overall in the ACC.
“Excellent, instinctive, tough football player,” said Gailey of Abbate. “You look out there and see him at 5-11, 230, he looks like a fireplug and you don’t think he can run like he does. He shouldn’t be able to get the corner and make a play, but he does. He’s tough, physical and aggressive. He plays with passion.”
Tech’s nine victories are its most since the 2000 season. The Jackets have won at least nine games for the third time in the last nine years but just the seventh time in the last 40 years. This year’s Jackets have tied the school record with seven ACC victories.