The Clemson/Georgia Tech rivalry has been one of the best in the country for nearly the last decade. Eight of the last 10 games have been decided by five or fewer points. Six of those contests ended in three point margins of victory.
That competitiveness sets the stage for what should be another great Saturday showdown. Both teams come into the game desperately needing a victory to keep hopes of a major bowl berth alive.
A victory for Clemson is a must if they are to make another late season surge like the ones they have executed the previous two seasons. Heading into November with a 5-3 record will put them where most experts predicted – on their way to a 7-4 record or possibly 8-3 with Florida State coming to Tigertown.
Tech caught a break last week when their game against Miami was postponed due to Hurricane Wilma. Contrary to what some believe, that change in scheduling did not give the Yellow Jackets two weeks to prepare.
The decision wasn’t made until Wednesday afternoon. With the limitations the NCAA has placed on practice and meetings (20 hours per week), Tech only received an extra day or two at the most focus on the Tigers. What did help was the time off to rest ailing players. They will enter the game much healthier than had they played last Saturday.
Georgia Tech returned 10 players this year with prior starting experience. Four of those have started for two or more years and the lineup consists of five seniors, four juniors, and two sophomores. LB Gerris Wilkinson (31), safety Dawan Landry (31), DE Eric Henderson (29), and tackle Mansfield Wrotto (27) have a combined 118 starts.
Wilkinson is one of the most underrated linebackers in the conference. He led the team in tackles in 2004 on his way to a second-team all-ACC selection as the defense finished 12th in the country. The graduate student has 44 tackles, six tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and an interception from his position in the middle.
Wilkinson started every game in 2003 as a defensive end. His time up front has given him an advantage in blitzing situations, but he is just as effective against the run and in pass coverage. He is comparable to former Tiger Rahim Abdullah in that he has the same type of build and makes plays all over the field.
He is flanked on one side by Phillip Wheeler. Redshirted in 2004 after playing in all 12 games his freshman year, Wheeler is currently tied for third nationally with four interceptions. He also has broke up three passes and made three tackles for loss. Like Wilkinson, his quickness and athletic ability allows him to make plays all over the field.
KaMichael Hall is the third linebacker. He leads the team with seven tackles for loss and is second on the team in tackles.
Strong safety Chris Reis teams with Landry to anchor the secondary. Reis returns to the secondary after spending 2004 as a linebacker, when he was fifth in the ACC in sacks and sixth in tackles for loss. Clemson knows Reis all to well after he recorded a career high 14 tackles in last year’s game. His experience essentially gives Tech a fourth linebacker when they stack the box to defend the run.
Joining those two is second-year starter Kenny Scott, who mans one of the corner positions. He returned the first two interceptions of his career for touchdowns, the most recent of which came this year against Connecticut.
Even though the linebackers and secondary seemingly get all of the attention, Georgia Tech's line is what makes their defense click. Defensive coordinator John Tenuta employs a lot of movement that enables the linemen to use their speed to penetrate gaps. They are in zone coverage a majority of the time because their front is so good at creating pressure.
Tackle Joe Anoai and Henderson are the leaders of the group. Anoai has played in relative obscurity despite being the team’s best interior linemen. He’s a great run stopper and opens up rushing lanes for his teammates in passing situations. Just to give you a different take on his athletic abilities, his father (Sika), brother (Rosey) and cousin (Rikishi) have been wrestlers with the WWE.
Henderson was a first-team all-ACC selection in 2003 and second-team in 2004. He is third in Tech history with 52 career tackles for loss and fifth with 20 sacks and has made at least one stop behind the line of scrimmage in 23 of his last 25 games.
He has missed the last four games with a shoulder injury but is expected to return this week. Anoai has also been hampered by an injury in recent weeks and is listed as questionable. Their health will be a pivotal factor in how their defense performs.
The Jackets have accumulated some gaudy numbers to date. They are second in the country with 14 interceptions, nine of which have been snagged by different players. Eleven players have combined for 16 sacks and 19 have registered a tackle for loss.
They are ranked 11th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (95.7), 10th in pass efficiency (102.1), and 18th in total defense (301). They have held opponents to less than 100 yards rushing in 23 of 43 games under Tenuta, going 17-6 when they achieve that goal.
They forced five second half turnovers against Auburn (4 INTs, 1 fumble). Opponents are converting just 26% of their third-down conversions, but they have scored on 14 of their 15 trips inside the red zone (8 TDs, 6 FGs).
They did give up 51 points to Virginia Tech a few of weeks ago, but that number is deceiving because they gave up just 320 yards.
Do not let the fact that they use a lot of zone coverage fool you – Tenuta likes to bring pressure. His aforementioned stunts and twists create favorable match ups for his line and he enhances that rush with a bevy of blitzes. Specifically, he loves to zone blitz. He will send one, two, and sometimes all three linebackers while dropping one or two linemen.
Charlie Whitehurst and the line may face their toughest challenge yet in terms of making reads. Tech does a very good job of disguising their coverages and blitzes and their movement creates a lot of lanes for delayed blitzers and linemen on twists.
As Clemson fans have come to learn, there are a lot of holes to be exploited in zone coverage if the quarterback is given ample time to throw. If Reggie Merriweather is able to carry the load for the rushing attack, it should slow down Tech’s rush and create time for Charlie operate the play action passes they need to win.
The one advantage Clemson definitely has is Tech cannot concentrate on shutting down just one or two receivers. Seventeen players have receptions this year, which is an unusually high number for any team, but especially for a team that been in as many close contests as Clemson.
Calvin Johnson needs no introduction. He has made the ascension to the top of the hill of wide receivers in the country after having his breakout performance against the Tigers last year. He leads the ACC in receptions (5.6) and yards (96.8) per game. The 6’4”, 230 lb. receiver is a nightmare for opponents.
Junior quarterback Reggie Ball is averaging 243.8 yards of total offense per game (212 passing). He had one of the best games of his career two weeks ago against N.C. State when he finished with 367 total yards.
He started off slow by going 6-for-25 in the first half but excelled in the second half when he was 15-of-28 for 207 yards while adding 67 on the ground. He also threw for 320 yards and two TDs, rushed for a TD, and had a 33-yard reception against UNC earlier this year as he was named the ACC Offensive Back of the Week.
Former walk-on P.J. Daniels leads the ground attack with 82.3 yards per game. He led the ACC in 2003 with nearly 1500 yards, including a career high 307 yards in their Humanitarian Bowl victory against Tulsa. The senior has 13 career 100-yard games, including four of his last six.
He has been slowed by a shoulder injury, but there has not been much of a let down thanks to Oklahoma transfer Tashard Choice. He played for the Sooners last season but the NCAA granted a hardship that kept him from sitting out a year. He rushed for a career high 107 yards on just 15 carriers against Duke and is second on the team with four touchdowns.
Damarious Bilbo has stepped up as another threat at receiver to help take some of the pressure off of Johnson. He had a career day early this season against North Carolina by making eight grabs for 131 yards. The former quarterback also threw a 33-yard pass to Ball. His 6’3”, 218 lb. frame and knowledge he garnered while playing quarterback gives him an advantage against many defensive backs.
The Jackets’ offensive line is led by senior Brad Honeycutt. He started at right guard in 2003 and 2004 but has made the move to tackle for his final season. He is by far the most seasoned veteran on a line that has lost three starters each of the last two years and features three freshmen and a sophomore.
The line is somewhat undersized in terms of modern-day standards (6’4”, 292). However, they are very agile and do a good job of positioning themselves. They have given up just five sacks on the season.
The five sacks allowed do not mean they have been a wall upfront. Tech moves the pocket a great deal because of Ball’s height (5’11”) and the fact that he runs so well. Despite creating opportunities for him to emphasize his positives, Ball is just 89-of-188 (47%) on the season and has thrown five interceptions in his last three games.
Head coach Chan Gailey uses a pro-style offense that operates mainly out of the I-formation. The focus is establishing a running game in order to set up their passing attack. The team is averaging 206 yards rushing and 154 yards rushing per game.
They will throw deep throughout the game more as a means of softening the defense because their focus is on the intermediate routes. They typically don’t throw to the backs or tight ends very much, but it seems like they have a tight end with a number of big catches every time they play the Tigers.
Because of they are so balanced offensively, the Clemson linebackers will have a lot of pressure on them this week. They must be stalwarts against the run, but they must do a good job of reading their area keys in order to provide help underneath in coverage.
The Tech staff has done an excellent job this year of finding different ways to create mismatches for Johnson. He has lined up in the slot more often in an attempt to put him on a safety or linebacker. He, along with the rest of the receivers, have done a much better job of working the middle of the field, which is another reason why the linebackers have to react.
They are converting just 33% of their third down opportunities and have scored on just 16 of their 23 trips inside the red zone (11 TDs, 5 FGs). Success on first and seconds downs is always an important factor in any game, but even more so this week because they are so versatile in short yardage situations as a result of their balance.
Ball’s inconsistency is another reason why stopping them on early downs is of such importance. He has been very streaky throughout his career and have struggles are exacerbated when he’s forced into one-dimensional situations such as third-and-long.
Of course, he has to be somewhat optimistic about his chances because Clemson has struggled against mobile quarterbacks as a result of their inability to create a solid rush with their front four. The tackles have to get a strong push up the middle when Ball does sit in the pocket and the ends have to contain when he rolls out.
Look for Koenning to continue to mix in a healthy dose of the 3-3-5 in an effort to provide help for the secondary and cause confusion for the young Tech line. If the front can effectively limit Tech’s ground game, he is also likely to bring a lot of different blitzes from both alignments.
Georgia Tech punter Ben Arndt is averaging 42.4 yards per punt and had downed 14 inside the 20-yard line with only one touchback. His net average of 38.58 is good for 12th best in the country.
Place kicker Travis Bell was a Lou Groza Award nominee last year after having a stellar freshman season. His is experiencing a sophomore slump, as he as missed his last five attempts. Those misses have come from 43, 35, 43, 27, and 24 yards.
Tech is matching Clemson’s ineffectiveness in the return game, as they are averaging 7.1 yards on punt returns and just 20 yards on kickoff returns.
The Tigers’ season long punting woes need a boost this week if they are to win the special teams battle. Jad Dean gives Clemson a definite advantage considering how Bell has performed, but that could be a wash if they lose the field position battle due to poor punting.
It should be another great game. Both teams have a lot riding on the outcome and each staff will pull out all the stops in order to get a win.
The performance of each offensive line will be the deciding factor in who comes out on top. Clemson has a slight advantage because of their experience and size, but Tech’s defense will present a stiff challenge. They are not as athletic as Miami and N.C. State nor are they as big as Boston College, but they have been tested many times before and are as disciplined as any team on the schedule.
In the end it is going to come down to who can make the most big plays on offense. Clemson is as battled tested as any team in the country and have a lot of Atlanta area players that want this one more than any other. Whitehurst’s experience and toughness will shine in the end as Clemson wins 34-31.