ATLANTA – Georgia Tech begins practice for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, head coach George O’Leary says that he is not surprised by the Yellow Jackets’ 9-2 record and No. 15 national ranking.
With temperatures Sunday dipping below the freezing mark and snow dusting Grant Field, the Yellow Jackets moved their first workout to the Georgia Dome, the site of their Dec. 29 matchup against LSU.
“I said last summer that I thought we had a chance to be a pretty good football team, but certain things had to happen,” said O’Leary, the Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year for the second time in the last three seasons.
“Defensively, obviously we had to play better, and I thought we did that. The quarterback position had to be solidified, and George Godsey, after he was named quarterback in the spring, never looked back. He distanced himself from the rest, and that’s a credit to him. The meshing of the offensive line was the other thing that had to happen, and that probably was the most significant improvement over the course of the season.”
Tech ranks second in the ACC and 21st nationally in scoring defense, allowing 19.0 points per game. The Jackets are 12th in the nation against the run at 94.5 yards per game.
“The improvement on defense didn’t surprise me,” said O’Leary, who has led Tech to four straight bowl games. “I said they would be better; they had to be. I thought there was enough talent there, but they were just a second slow or out of position. That comes from experience, so I thought that would improve.
“The maturity level improved, the speed improved, and those young freshmen seemed to progress. I think Ted Roof has done an outstanding job getting guys in position to make plays.”
Two of the most significant areas of improvement on defense are turnover margin, in which the Jackets improved from last in Division I-A to second with a ratio of +1.64 turnovers per game, and pass rush, with the Jackets recording 39 quarterback sacks, more than double their 1999 total.
“I knew George Godsey would know the offense, and I thought he had more weapons around him compared to Joe when he took over,” continued O’Leary, who saw his quarterback earn second-team all-ACC honors while throwing for 2,906 yards and 23 touchdowns. “The pressure was put on Joe early to make plays. George didn’t get himself in a lot of problems, and that was the secret to his success.”
Tech’s offensive line led the ACC in fewest sacks allowed with 16, including only two sacks over the final six games. Left tackle Chris Brown was a consensus first-team all-America, while right guard Brent Key earned first-team all-ACC honors.
“The offensive line probably came jelled a little bit sooner than I thought they would,” said O’Leary. “When they started jelling, we became a pretty good offense. We weren’t running the ball well early, but when they started establishing the line of scrimmage, the play-action game became more of a factor.”
O’Leary also cited team chemistry as a major factor in this year’s success, led by captains Brown, Key, Felipe Claybrooks and Jon Muyres.
“I thought we had some great seniors this year,” said O’Leary. “We have a lot of young players that needed some direction, and the seniors weren’t afraid to speak up and make sure their focus is where it needs to be. The chemistry of this club is outstanding.”