It may be the best series no one talks about.
The Tigers and Yellow Jackets have played 23 times since Georgia Tech joined the ACC, with Clemson holding a 12-11 advantage in those games. Only three of the last 16 games – more specifically, nine of the last 10 - have been decided by five points or less. The six games between 1996 and 2001 were all decided by three points.
Saturday’s meeting has all the makings of another close game. The two teams come into the game ranked 12th and 13th and on somewhat of a roll since losing early in the season.
Georgia Tech is undefeated in their division while Clemson has one conference loss. It is more of a must win for the Tigers because two conference losses would mean they would need a lot of help to make it to Jacksonville. The Jackets could easily still make it to the championship game with just one ACC defeat.
With the shot at a championship and ESPN’s Game Day crew visiting campus for the first time, there has been no shortage of hype. This is, without a doubt, once of the biggest game played in Death Valley in a long time.
Tech defensive coordinator John Tenuta is one of the best in the business. He has quietly put together solid defenses during his tenure in Atlanta and this year’s version may be one of his best.
His scheme employs a lot of movement and he blitzes at least one player nearly every play. In just one of the contrasts of strengths and weaknesses that will play a role this week, his defense is known for shutting down the ground game while Clemson has become a run oriented offense.
Tenuta’s defense has held opponent to under 100 yards rushing in 29 of the 56 games he has been in Atlanta. This year is has been more of the same as teams are averaging just 72.5 yards per game and 2.4 yards per rush. They have given up more than 100 yards just twice this season (101 vs. Troy and 138 vs. Notre Dame).
Leading the way has been KaMichael Hall and Phillip Wheeler. Both are postseason awards candidates and Wheeler was named a first team mid-season All-American by si.com. Sporting News named him to their second team.
Neither player is very big (6’0”, 225 and 6’2”, 225) but both have excellent speed and are excellent in coverage. Wheeler is in his first year as a starter in the middle after starting last year on the outside. Hall is a third-year starter.
Hall had 11 tackles and one sack against Maryland and caused a key fumble that led to Tech’s go-ahead touchdown. He also racked up 11 tackles, two sacks, two pass breakups, and one forced fumble against Virginia Tech.
Wheeler is second in the conference in both tackles for loss and sacks with 9.5 and five. He also had a big day against Virginia Tech with eight tackles, two sacks, and a caused fumble.
They guys up front are not very big but they are very good and getting penetration through the use of movement. Darryl Richard (6’4”, 285) and Joe Anoia (6’3”, 280) are the tackles. Anoai is in his third year as a starter and the unsung hero of the unit. He is a preseason All-ACC selection who is very deserving of any accolades he may receive at the end of the year.
The ends are Darrel Robertson (6’4”, 245) and Adamm Oliver (6’4”, 245). Robertson is the better athlete of the two but Oliver is a player’s player. He has a motor that never stops and, much like Anoai, does not receive enough credit.
If there is a weakness for the Georgia Tech defense, it is their secondary. They gave up 339 yards to a Virginia Tech team not known for its passing game. Tech was down by 21 early in the game and had to throw more than would have liked, but they still had nearly a 50/50 run-to-pass ratio.
Kenny Scott is the lone returning starter. He is a three year starter at corner and another preseason All-ACC selection. Scott has very good height (6’2”) and plays very fundamentally sound football. He had returned two of four career interceptions for touchdowns.
Opposite Scott is sophomore Jahi Word-Daniels. This is his first year as a starter and only saw action in eight games last year, most of which came on special teams. He did not lock down the starting job until the preseason and is the weakest part of their defense.
Both safeties, Jamal Lewis and Djay Jones, are in their first year as starters. Lewis began the season listed as one of the guys battling for the job at cornerback after playing in all 24 games the previous two years but was moved to safety. Jones played in 12 games last year, but much like Word-Daniels a majority of his snaps was on special teams.
Although Florida State was more athletic and possessed much more team speed, Tech will be the toughest defense Clemson will see this year.
Their front will show a number of different twists and stunts and will occasionally drop into coverage because Tenuta likes to zone blitz. Their front also does a good job allowing the linebackers to make plays by tying up blockers.
Even though the Jackets do blitz a lot, they rarely sell out. More often than not, they bring five guys and drop six into coverage. The reason they are so good at what they do is they mix up their looks by using a number of different guys as the fifth blitzer.
The two keys for the Clemson offense will be the running game and the productivity of Will Proctor.
There is no doubt Tech’s goal is going to be stopping Clemson’s ground attack. The Tigers are averaging 250 yards per game on the ground and the Jackets would like to cut that number in half. If they are able to do it by sticking to their normal plan, they will be able to sit back in coverage and force Proctor to make plays.
If not, they will have to commit another man to help stop the run. Again, that will create opportunities for Proctor. Regardless of how effective they are against the run, Proctor is going to have to be a bigger part of the offense than he has been in past weeks.
With the loss of two starting receivers in the last three weeks, I think Spence will give his tight ends a few more opportunities to catch the ball. Because Tech’s linebackers are fast and the entire defense pursues so well, delaying the tight ends before releasing them should be effective.
And because Tech will be so focused on the run, Spence will likely use a number of bootlegs to catch the defense out of position. Do not be surprised to see Proctor throw occasionally throw back across the field when he rolls out.
Of course, the old adage is the best way to loosen up a run defense is to go deep. With three first-year starters in the secondary and Jacoby Ford getting more comfortable in his role as a receiver, Spence may finally take a few deep shots. The deep routes set up by faking the screens have been effective against attacking defenses and should be again this week.
Chan Gailey turned over the play calling duties to offensive coordinator Patrick Nix this year and the offense has been better because of it.
Nix has done of good job of masking the weaknesses of Reggie Ball by playing to his strengths. He has asked him to do less passing out of the pocket and giving him more opportunities to run the ball.
The biggest mystery when facing Georgia Tech the last three years has been which Reggie Ball will show up. He looked like a future All-ACC selection two years ago in Clemson but has had games throughout his career when he looked uncomfortable and out of position.
Ball has become a threat this year because he is more comfortable in Nix’s offense, but he also looks better because he has gotten a lot of help from running back Rashard Choice and receivers Calvin Johnson and James Johnson.
In case you are the one person on the face of the earth that has not watched ESPN this year, Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in college football and quite possibly the second coming of Superman.
Most everyone outside of the Georgia Tech fan base has grown weary of all the hype ESPN has showered upon him, but the fact is it is well deserved. His size (6’5”, 235), speed (4.35) and leaping ability (45-inch vertical) make him a rare athlete who is nearly impossible to shutout.
Aside from the Samford and Troy games in which he saw very little action, he is averaging 133 yards, 7.25 catches, and 1.5 touchdowns per game. He has 22 catches for 413 yards and five touchdowns in their last three games.
In his two-and-a-half years at Tech he has accounted for 40% of their passing yards and 30% of their completions. He has also recorded 21 of their 39 touchdown receptions during that time. This year he has been responsible for 43.8 % of their completions and 54.5 % of their passing yards.
After Calvin Johnson, James Johnson has been about the only receiver Ball has found. Calvin has 35 catches and James has 15. That is 50 of the Jackets’ 80 receptions on the year. Four other players have four receptions, three have three, and five have one.
Choice is coming off a career best 138-yard performance against Maryland that also included two touchdowns. That followed up a 105 yard, two touchdown game against Virginia Tech.
He originally signed with Oklahoma and spent a year there behind Adrian Peterson. Tech has developed a reputation for having very productive backs over the last decade or so and he fits right in.
He does not have astonishing speed or power but he is the type of guy that can wear down defenses by toting it 25 or 30 times a game. He currently leads the conference in yards per game in league contests.
The offensive line returns four starters and led the conference last year by allowing just 10 sacks. They have given up seven so far this year.
The lone newcomer is a veteran of sorts. Mansfield Wrotto steps in at right tackle after spending his first three years as a major contributor on the defensive line. He spent the spring of 2005 as an offensive lineman but returned to defense in the preseason.
The rest of the group is led by left tackle Andrew Gardner. He was a freshman All-American last year and tabbed a preseason All-ACC performer this year. Center Matt Rhodes and guards Kevin Tuminello and Nate McManus have started at least one full season.
Tech is still a run first team. They have run the ball 60% of the time so far this season while completing just over 50% of their passes.
Aside from Calvin Johnson, Tech puts a lot of pressure on defenses because they can do so many things. They mix in a little option to go with their ground attack and great play action game.
Clemson did an outstanding job of limiting Calvin Johnson last year by holding him to just four catches and no touchdowns. It is hard to believe anyone will deny him two years in a row. The key will be how well the Tigers control him after the catch and in goal line situations. He has been nearly unstoppable in the red zone.
As important as the play of the secondary will be, I think the real key will be how Clemson’s tackles play. They need to force Ball to stay in the pocket by closing any lanes up the middle because Gaines Adams and Phillip Merling have done a good job of creating pressure while maintaing contain.
That will prevent Ball from making things happen with his feet and also force him to throw over linemen, which is hard for him because of his height.
Tech has benefited from big plays more this year than in the past because the line has given Ball time to take shots downfield and Calvin Johnson has had some big runs after the catch. If Clemson can control Johnson and force Ball to get rid of it quickly, I think the defense has a big day because they have been so good against the run.
As horrendous as Clemson’s kickoff coverage has been, Georgia Tech’s has been equally as bad. They are giving up just over 30 yards per return on 20 kicks.
Clemson has made some personnel changes on their unit. Who the new guys are remains a mystery. What the unit needs more than anything is better kicks, better lane management, and a better job of shedding blocks. If they allow Georgia Tech to operate on a short field all night, the Tigers will not be able to recover.
The flip side of that is Jacoby Ford and C.J. Spiller will have a chance to change the game with a big return. Clemson has done a better job of blocking in recent weeks and each of the freshmen has looked more comfortable just catching it and getting up the field. If that trend continues and Tech does not improve, the game may be won by this unit.
Jad Dean has seemed to gain a newfound sense of confidence with his field goal kicking over the last two weeks. If true, that is another good sign for the Tigers because he will be needed more than once Saturday night.
Georgia Tech has the benefit of having a bye week coming into the game after having to battle back with two fourth quarter scores to beat Maryland. Clemson did not have to show very much against Temple and even appeared to throw in a few wrinkles just to make Chan Gailey prepare for a few more things defensively.
Maybe the biggest task facing Tommy Bowden this week is how he manages his team from a mental perspective. The Temple contest was nothing more than an organized scrimmage after a very emotional win against Wake. Now they are faced with their biggest game in some time followed up by a trip to Virginia Tech on a short week.
Georgia Tech’s game at Virginia Tech has been their only road trip of the season. Lane Stadium is normally a very tough venue but the Hokies seem to be down a little this year and the Jackets were able to take the crowd out of the game early.
Clemson’s home crowd should be very raucous for the 7:45 start and can play a big role in the outcome. The Tigers have regained some of that mystique that surrounded Death Valley during much of the 80s over the last few years. Saturday night will be the biggest test yet as to whether or not Clemson’s home field is what it used to be.
In the end, the team that does the best job of running the ball will be the team that wins. Because of the additional time off and the level at which the Tech defense has been playing, I have thought all week it would be the teams that emerges triumphant.
However, something in my gut tells me the Tigers have enough leadership and talent to finally make a statement when it matters the most. They should give the home crowd reason to be loud all night as they pull out fourth quarter victory by a score of 27-21.