Sept. 2, 2003
ATLANTA–The Georgia Tech football team will face nationally ranked Auburn in its home opener on Saturday, Sept. 6, at 3:30 p.m., in the newly expanded Bobby Dodd Stadium. The game will be regionally televised on ABC and will mark the first time Tech and Auburn have met since 1987. Head Coach Chan Gailey and the Yellow Jacket players are excited about playing in front of a sellout crowd of 55,000.
“I think our guys are excited about it,” said Gailey. “I think they know this is a big game. They’re playing a team that’s an hour and thirty minutes down the road. It’s a renewal of an old rivalry. A lot of them don’t understand that completely, but they understand it’s a big ball game.”
Auburn enters this weekend ranked 17th in the Associated Press poll and 19th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. The Tigers were shutout by No. 10 Southern California, but Gailey knows Auburn is a much better team than they showed in the season opener.
“I was very impressed with USC and the way they played,” said Gailey. “I thought Auburn was strong and fast, and they just didn’t play well enough to win the ballgame. They are a good football team, and they can probably be a great football team. Like a lot of people, they didn’t play the way that they wanted to on Saturday.”
Despite the loss to BYU, true freshman quarterback Reggie Ball played a solid opening game on the road. The first true freshman to ever start a Tech season opener, he completed 15 of 24 passes for 147 yards while rushing five times for 39 yards. Ball’s most impressive play was a 33-yard scamper down to the BYU four-yard line that set up the Yellow Jackets’ first score.
“I think Reggie sat there and looked at the things that he could have done better,” said Gailey. “He’s pretty good at being self-critical, it’s not like you have to sit there and point it out. He knows where he could have made some different decisions. But there weren’t a ton of those, to be honest with you. I think he’ll get better with experience, feeling the game and understanding coverages and seeing all of the different things that could be thrown at him. We tried to devise a game plan last week that would not be that difficult in terms of reads and things that he has to do. As time goes on, we will increase the amount of responsibility on him. He had a good day of practice yesterday, understanding what he has to do this week.”
Southern California was able to implement a game plan that prevented the Tigers from getting anything going on the ground, thus creating predictable situations for its defense. Gailey knows that if Tech wants to repeat that performance, they must do the same thing with a different approach.
“I think everybody was surprised that they were able to hold Auburn’s running game down the way that they did,” said Gailey. “If you can stop the run against most teams, you’ll win a lot of football games. They did a good job at not turning the ball over, and they got a couple of turnovers early, and converted them into points. Those kinds of things created some momentum for Southern Cal. They took the crowd out of it, which I think was a big part. So you can’t say there was just one thing, but I think stopping the run was a big part of them winning the game.
“We don’t look like USC on the defensive line, that’s for sure. We’re going to have to be a lot more mobile, we’re going to have to move, we’re going to have to be quick, and we’re going to have to get in the gaps in a hurry, because if you look at Auburn’s offensive line, they are very big. We’ve got to rely on quickness. They’ll probably cut their splits down, things like that, to not allow us to get in there, and try to muscle up. So it will be one of those types of games: how quickly we can hit the creases and how quickly they can cover them up.”
The Tigers return a solid linebacking corps and have defensive lineman that can move. A pair of linebackers, in Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas are preseason All-Americans. and Gailey understands that they will be tough to deal with.
“(Antarrious) Williams, the guy that’s playing over on the other side, can really run. (Karlos) Dansby and (Dontarrious) Thomas are both about 6-4, 235 lbs, they are prototype linebackers. They have great range. Dansby, in particular, can really run. He can split out over a wide-out when he has to, when you go to slot, he’ll split himself out and he’ll be in on the running game in a hurry. So they’re very talented, athletically. You better be able to get on the down linemen, and stop penetration there because they’ll take that good hard jab-step from penetration and then read what you are doing. If you don’t stop that penetration, those guys will hurt you, and then you better be able to get up on the linebacker. They do a great job of trying to cover up, especially Thomas, and let him run to the football.”
The return of Auburn in Atlanta also marks the first time Georgia Tech assistant coach Patrick Nix will get to face his alma mater as a coach. Nix played quarterback for the Tigers from 1992-95 and was the starting quarterback when Auburn went undefeated in 1993. In 1995, Nix was the recipient of the team’s Pat Sullivan Award for Offensive Player of the Year as well as the Cliff Hare Award as the school’s Student-Athlete of the Year.
“I think Nix looks forward to every week,” said Gailey. “He loves challenges, so I think he’s excited about this challenge, whoever it is. He probably would rather not play Auburn. He’d much rather play Alabama.”
Along with Ball, nine other Tech freshmen played in the season opener, including Ball and fellow starter Mansfield Wrotto at defensive tackle. Cornerback Kenny Scott blocked a punt that teammate Nathan Burton recovered for a touchdown. Scott was one of seven Yellow Jacket rookies on special teams units, including linebackers Philip Wheeler, KaMichael Hall and Nick Moore, safety Joe Gaston, cornerback Brian Fleuridor and receiver Chris Dunlap. Wheeler and defensive end Joe Anoai saw extensive action on defense.
Several other true freshmen could play in the coming weeks. Tech’s 10 true freshmen are the most to see action for the Jackets since 1995, when 15 played.