Oct. 20, 2003
ATLANTA – Two of the hottest teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference will meet in the national spotlight this Thursday, Oct. 23, as Georgia Tech and Maryland will kick off at 7:45 p.m. in Bobby Dodd Stadium on ESPN.
Both teams enter this week after a bye. Maryland dropped its first two games of the season, but has rallied with five straight wins and stand at 6-2, 2-1 ACC. The Terrapins have outscored their last five opponents 186-47 and are averaging 447.4 yards per game during the streak. The Terps have one of the more balanced attacks in the conference, averaging over 201.2 yards on the ground and 246.2 yards through the air.
“Both teams have played well as of late,” said head coach Chan Gailey. “They’ve done a great job, lately. They lost the first two of the year but then they’ve come on strong. I think that both teams are going to be playing with a lot of confidence.”
“The plays and the formations and the personnel groups,” said Gailey about the Maryland offense and former Tech assistant coach, and Maryland head coach, Ralph Friedgen. “The option is already a part of the personnel groups that they have, so you always have to be ready for that. Again, he’s a very knowledgeable coach. He knows how to attack defenses and how to put his players in a position to be successful. You put those things together, and he has a very good offense and a very good plan, and they execute well.”
The Terps’ defense is second in the ACC in total defense and pass defense, allowing 294.7 yards of total offense per game and 185.1 yards through the air. Maryland has two shutout wins in its last five games and is only allowing 9.4 points per game during its winning streak.
“It’s not the schemes as much as it’s the way that they play them,” said Gailey. “They are very, very sound. This team really does a good job of being sound. They cover every zone when they play zone, they rush in their lanes, they’re not going to give you the cheap play and they make you earn everything all of the way down the field. When they play man, they are good at it. They’ve got good players, and their sound. They mix things up just enough to keep you off balance. They’ve got a good scheme going right now. With whatever they’re doing, they do it well. Whenever they do a change-up, it’s good, solid and sound, so they make you check all of your rules every time that you learn a play.”
Georgia Tech (4-3, 2-2 ACC) has been just as hot over the last three games. The Yellow Jackets are averaging 25.7 points per game over their three-game stint, compared to 11.5 points per game before the streak. Georgia Tech has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in three of its last four ballgames and held NC State to minus eight yards rushing a few weeks ago.
“It’s probably that we have matured a little bit faster than I had anticipated,” said Gailey. “I think the Clemson game was a giant dose of reality as to who we are. We are a team that has to go out and throw their best game on the field every week. We have to have a great week of preparation and throw our best game out there to give ourselves a chance to win. Not to guarantee victory, but to give ourselves a chance to win. I think our guys got it after the Clemson game. They’d been riding pretty high there for a couple of weeks and they realize that’s not the way it is. You have to fight every day to get to where you want to be.”
The offense is a big reason why the Jackets have been rolling as of late. The offensive line, led by senior center Hugh Reilly, has been consistent over the last three weeks and has become more of a balanced attack. Tailback P.J. Daniels rushed for a career-best 175 yards against Wake Forest and has eclipsed the century mark three times this season. Daniels currently ranks second in the ACC with 89.0 rushing yards per game.
“It’s not just one thing,” said Gailey. “It’s understanding schemes better, working with each other on a consistent basis, that part of it’s been good. As a coaching staff, you’re always trying to get a feel for what your players can do best and what they don’t do best. So we’re trying to put our players in a position to do that. If you look back, we can look and see that this is what P.J. does, this is what our line does, this is how we can use Foschi, this is how we can use the reverse and misdirection, and whatever it might be. It’s started to come together better in the past few weeks.”
Freshman quarterback Reggie Ball has been consistent for the Yellow Jackets and is a strong candidate for ACC Rookie of the Year. Ball has been named ACC Rookie of the Week four times, including each of the last three weeks. The true freshman has completed 45 of 84 (53.6%) passes for 616 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, during Tech’s three-game winning streak.
“It’s probably some of everything,” said Gailey. “If it was just one thing, I’d have done it earlier. It’s a combination of him probably being more comfortable with the offense, it’s probably us not having to press certain throws in certain areas, not getting behind in yardage situations. Again, we’re a team that has stressed not turning the ball over. That’s a big part of our success formula: limiting turnovers and getting some.”
Ball’s favorite target has been senior wide receiver Jonathan Smith. Smith leads the ACC with 128 all purpose yards per game and 103.6 receiving yards per game. The Argyle, Ga., native ranks fourth in career receptions (136) and fifth in career receiving yards (1,825) in school history. Smith was named Offensive Back of the Week after his last two games, catching 16 balls for 349 yards and two touchdowns.
“There are two things, to me, that make Jonathan a special football player,” said Gailey. “One, when he has the ball in his hands, he is a dangerous player. He’s very good with the ball in his hands. Two, he understands the game. He’s a very intelligent football player. When I said he is good with the ball in his hands, that’s not only running. That means when the ball is up in the air, he can come down with it, he can go between two guys and he can take it away from a guy. He’s very good with the ball around him, and then with the ball in his hands as well. I think it’s a matter of him getting on the field on a consistent basis. Last year there were two seniors on the field the majority of the time, and he just needed to get on the field more and have his opportunities. Like you said, he’s taking advantage of his opportunities, now that they’re here.”
Playing in the national spotlight is nothing new for the Yellow Jackets. Tech opened up the season on a Thursday night against BYU and will be playing its 16th Thursday night game on ESPN, more than any other school. The Jackets hold a 7-8 record, including a loss in College Park, Md., last year to the Terrapins.
“Every time you play on national television, it helps,” said Gailey. It’s great exposure for the program, for the university, for everything, and you obviously want to do well when you’re on that stage. I don’t know of anybody that doesn’t understand that, but you don’t realize that while you’re playing the game. That’s pre-game and post-game. What happens during the game is all you’re concentrating on at the time.
“It’s normally a game where you’re the only one on, like Monday night football, so there are similarities in those respects. I think that guys, in general, like playing in those situations. I know it’s a lot easier to play at home than on the road in those situations.
“I think it’s very good for your program to get that national exposure. We’re a national school. If we were not a national school, I wouldn’t think that it would be as important, but with the reputation that the university has, and us understanding that we have to recruit nationally, then I think it’s very important for us to be on Thursday nights, if possible.”
Shutting down rushing attacks has been the recipe of success for the Jackets. Georgia Tech ranks 19th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 94.6 yards per game on the ground. Senior linebackers Keyaron Fox and Daryl Smith, along with defensive end Eric Henderson lead Tech’s defense. Fox ranks second in the ACC with 12.3 tackles per game, while Smith stands seventh with 10.3 tackles per game. Henderson leads the defense with 12 tackles for losses and is tied for first in the ACC with six total sacks.
“We’ve had some players that have made some great leaps,” said Gailey. “Gerris Wilkinson has made tremendous progress, moving him from linebacker to defensive end for us. Even though he’s not the biggest guy, he’s made some great strides playing defensive end. To have a freshman in Mansfield Wrotto come in and do what he’s doing for our defensive line has been big. And then the consistent play of Travis (Parker) and Eric (Henderson). Not only consistent play, but outstanding. They’ve made some big plays. We’ve stayed fairly healthy for the most part, and I think that’s been another big part of it. Anytime your defense can stay healthy and you’ve got the same guys out there, carrying over from week-to-week, that’s been great for us.”