Oct. 29, 2002
Having righted its ship with a win over Virginia, Georgia Tech (5-3, 2-3 ACC) now turns its attention to eighth-ranked and undefeated NC State (9-0, 4-0) Saturday in a 3:30 p.m. (ABC Regional, WSB Atlanta) meeting at Raleigh’s Carter-Finley Stadium.
Enjoying the program’s best-ever start, the Wolfpack is in search of a school-record victory No. 10 against the Jackets. NC State shares the nation’s third-longest winning streak with Notre Dame and Ohio State. Additionally, the Pack stands 4-0 in the ACC for the first time since the 1989 season. NC State has not opened the league slate 5-0 since 1967.
Tech, however, has won six of the last seven meetings with NC State. The only loss was a 30-23 overtime defeat in 2000, the Jackets last trip to Raleigh. Tech is 4-6 all-time at Carter-Finley.
NC State is led by a potent offensive attack, which averages 40.9 points per game to rank sixth nationally. The Wolfpack has found the end zone 51 times this season, tying a school record set in 1973. The 368 points totalled this season already rank third on the school’s all-time list.
Junior quarterback Philip Rivers, the national leader in passing efficiency, pilots the Wolfpack attack. He has thrown for 2,144 yards and 16 touchdowns, while rushing for an additional eight scores. He ranks second in NC State history and ninth in ACC history with 7,784 career passing yards. Rivers has enjoyed some success against Tech, averaging 242.5 yards passing per game and throwing four touchdown passes, along with four interceptions.
“There have been a lot of great quarterbacks, here and at other places, that have been unorthodox but have won football games,” said Tech head coach Chan Gailey, on Rivers’ supposed unorthodox mechanics. “If you were drawing up quarterbacks, you wouldn’t draw up Joe Hamilton, but he won a bunch of games. The objective is to lead your team to victory, and Rivers does a great job of that.”
While Rivers was a known commodity entering this season, true freshman running back T.A. McClendon has been quite a surprise. He is tied for sixth in the nation in scoring with 14 touchdowns, including 11 scores in the last five games. His scoring mark has already tied the ACC record for touchdowns by a freshman, which is held by North Carolina’s Leon Johnson. McClendon ranks second in the conference with 101.6 yards rushing per outing.
“The biggest thing that we have to do against NC State’s offense is to stop the run,” said Gailey. “Their freshman running back has really added a lot to their offense. Last year it was dependent more on Philip Rivers throwing the football and some trick plays. This year they are attacking people with the running game, and it is giving them more of a balanced offense.”
The NC State defense is led by senior linebacker Dantonio Burnette, who has tallied 42 tackles, eight tackles for loss and six sacks in his last four games. He ranks fourth all-time at NC State with 405 career stops. He has eight sacks this season, while teammate Shawn Price has added seven. As a team, the Pack has 36 sacks to lead the nation and establish a new school record.
“They are not the biggest group in the world, but they do have speed,” said Gailey on the NC State defense. “That is the one thing that they have been able to win with. They create a lot of bad plays for offenses with their speed. They knock the ball loose a lot and create turnovers. You have to focus in on where those guys are and make sure you are accounting for their blitzes. They are doing a nice job on defense – they don’t allow you to run it and they put pressure on you when you pass it. Our job will be to try to get some ball control going and keep their offense off the field. That will be one of the keys for us on Saturday.”
Tech will counter the Wolfpack offense with an improving unit of its own. Quarterback A.J. Suggs is coming off his best outing at Tech against Virginia (26-of-41, 220 yards, 1 TD), while wide receiver Kerry Watkins continues his fine senior season. He leads the ACC with 5.8 receptions and 90.6 yards per game. In ACC games, Watkins averages 7.2 grabs and 102.2 yards per outing.
“He’s got great statistics, he’s made big plays, he’s made the hard catches, he’s blocked, he’s been a leader for us,” said Gailey of Watkins. “How you put what he’s meant into actual words, I don’t know. Obviously he’s had a great year and he’s meant a lot to our football team.”
Due to injuries, the Jackets revolving backfield continued against Virginia with a great deal of success. Fifth-year senior Gordon Clinkscale and redshirt freshman P.J. Daniels enjoyed career outings against the Cavaliers. Clinkscale had 74 yards on the ground against Virginia, while Daniels added 95 yards and a score, earning ACC Rookie of the Week honors in the process.
“You are so happy for guys like that who fight that long and that hard to get something,” said Gailey on the play of Daniels. “The great thing about him is, he’s playing and he gets a scholarship, and he still wants more. He wants to continue to work toward being a better player.”