Sept. 16, 2003
ATLANTA – The Georgia Tech football team enters this weekend’s match-up with Clemson with a 1-2 record. But that does not tell the whole story.
The Yellow Jackets had No. 10 Florida State on the ropes until the Seminoles scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to overtake Tech, 14-13, in Tallahassee, Fla. Georgia Tech upset No. 17 Auburn in week two, 17-3, in its first game in refurbished Bobby Dodd Stadium. This Saturday night, the Jackets will try and improve to 2-0 at Bobby Dodd as they take on Clemson at 7 p.m.
Most football teams search for an identity during the course of the season. What has defined Tech’s 2003 football team is defense. The Yellow Jackets’ defense held the 10th ranked Seminoles to 26 yards of total offense in the first half and only 251 yards in the game. Against Auburn two weeks ago, the Jackets held the Tigers to 40 yards rushing and without a touchdown. The Tech defense went seven straight quarters without allowing a touchdown before the final period at FSU and currently rank 22nd in the nation in total defense. But as good as they have been, head coach Chan Gailey says that depth is a key issue.
“I think it will always be a problem, unless we do like we did in the first half of the FSU game and play 16 people on defense,” said Gailey. “The second thing we can do is try and develop some depth at some point by playing more people. The problem with that is we really have not had a chance to put a bunch of people in the game because every game has been close at the end.
“To better our chances we have to stop the other team on third downs and keep the ball on offense. Ball control is very important, and it showed in the fourth quarter against Florida State.”
The Yellow Jacket offense has progressively gotten better over the first three weeks of the season. The Jackets possessed the ball for 23:06 in the first half of the Florida State game, compared to the Seminoles’ 6:54. In the first two weeks of the season, Tech ran 107 plays to its opponents 150, and against nationally-ranked Florida State, Tech ran 64 plays to the ‘Noles’ 62. That being said, Gailey believes there is plenty of room for improvement.
“Our offense is nowhere close to where I want it to be,” says Gailey. “We’re going to base our offense on points scored, not turning the ball over, not taking sacks, allowing ourselves to be in a position to win every ball game. Our offense has played very well in spurts, at times. But we are not close to where we need to be in some areas, and it will take time. This is a new offense this year, and it’s going to take some time to get it all in place.”
The special teams unit has been one of the main ingredients for Tech’s early success. The Jackets converted on fake punts against Auburn and Florida State, leading to points in each instance. The Rambling Wreck blocked a punt for a touchdown against BYU and senior placekicker Dan Burnett has made all five field goal attempts this season, including a career-long 45-yarder against the Seminoles. Burnett entered the 2003 season 0-for-4 in his career.
“He’s done a great job. He’s been very consistent, and he even had a situation in the ballgame last week where the timing wasn’t right, he got off balance and still kept his composure and made the kick. That was a big step for him and for us, so he’s been a very pleasant surprise, and I’m happy for him as a player.”
Clemson enters this weekend with a 2-1 record. The Tigers are 2-0 in September and are 14-3 in that same month under head coach Tommy Bowden. Clemson is averaging over 450 yards of total offense over the last two ballgames after being shut out in its season opener. Starting quarterback Charlie Whitehurst already ranks number one on Clemson’s completion percentage (.614) and passing efficiency (135.61). Whitehurst carries a 70 percent completion rate this season and is averaging 250 passing yards per game.
“He’s played pretty well,” said Gailey. “He’s made a lot of things happen the last two weeks, especially. I mean, 450 yards of offense in the last two games, they are really doing a good job. He’s got some good weapons, and he’s taking advantage of those weapons. They’re doing a good job running plays that fit his strengths. He’s an older guy, but of course, compared to our guy, everyone’s an older guy.
“He’s been around for a while, it’s not like he’s just played eight games. He understands the game and with his background, probably better than others (his father, David Whitehurst, played quarterback for the Green Bay Packers from 1977-83).”
Senior linebackers Keyaron Fox and Daryl Smith have gotten off to a great start for the Jackets. Fox leads the ACC in tackles (43/14.3 per game) and Smith ranks second on the team with 33. Each of them has four tackles for losses and one sack. Joining them is defensive lineman Eric Henderson who was named National Defensive Player of the Week for his four-sack performance against Auburn.
“Those guys have been great,” said Gailey. “Yes, we run stunts and schemes to allow them to make plays, but you still have to make them. They are quick and have a good understanding of the game, and when a situation presents itself, they make the best of it.”
After returning home from a disappointing loss, freshman quarterback Reggie Ball said something that nobody usually says, “we won’t lose again.” Every team on the Jackets’ schedule will use that as locker room material, but that doesn’t matter to Gailey. Confidence is the key factor and he isn’t upset about his quarterback speaking it out loud.
“When I heard that he said that and saw it in print, I said that it would end up on every wall of every team that we’ll play from here on out,” says Gailey. “That being said, I love his confidence. You can weigh both sides of it. He wasn’t making the statement glibly. He believes that, and that’s great.”
Ball was put into a hostile situation for the first time this season and handled it well. The 5-9 freshman completed 11 of 24 passes, for 116 yards and threw one interception. Under pressure almost on every snap, Ball had a crowd of 80,000 plus as quiet as a church at times with his play. Gailey is happy with the results thus far.
“The quarterback is the guy that is quoted, talked to, interviewed and scrutinized the most. But you hope that every guy on your football team has that same type of attitude, confidence verging on cockiness that allows you to go play, cut loose, believe in yourself, and be successful. That’s what takes guys that don’t fit the size and speed mold and allows them to be great players at some point in time, because they have that belief in themselves.”