Tech Prepares for Utes
Dec. 21, 2005
ATLANTA--Playing in its ninth consecutive bowl game, 24th-ranked Georgia Tech (7-4) prepares to face one of the nation's most prolific offenses as the Yellow Jackets take on Utah (6-5) in the Emerald Bowl, Dec. 29 in San Francisco. Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. ET at SBC Park, and the game will be nationally televised on ESPN.
The Yellow Jackets resumed bowl practice on Monday following last week's final exams. Tech will continue workouts in Atlanta through Saturday, when the team departs for San Francisco at 2:30 p.m.
The Jackets feature one of the nation's top defenses, led by a trio of all-ACC honorees in defensive end Eric Henderson, linebacker Gerris Wilkinson and safety Dawan Landry. Tech ranks 10th in the nation in total defense, allowing 296.4 yards per game. The Jackets are 11th in rushing defense (98.0), 14th in pass efficiency defense (105.3), 16th in scoring defense (18.45), seventh in interceptions (19) and 17th in turnover margin (+0.82).
The Tech defense will be challenged by a Utah attack that averages 466.0 yards per game, which ranks 12th nationally. That total includes 286.6 yards through the air and 179.4 yards on the ground.
"They've got a good football team," said Tech head coach Chan Gailey of the Utes at Wednesday's press conference. "In four of their five losses, they were ahead at some point. They could have easily won nine or 10 games. They're a very strong football team. They lost some players from last year, but they're still a strong football team.
"They're a lot more wide open offensively than anybody we've played. They use a lot of weapons, motion, different personnel groupings."
Utah's starting quarterback, Brian Johnson, who is fourth in the nation in total offense (337.0 yards per game), will miss the bowl game after suffering a season-ending knee injury. His replacement is Brett Ratliff, who made his only start in the regular-season finale against Brigham Young and led the Utes to 41-34 overtime victory over their arch-rival. Ratliff posted eye-catching numbers against the Cougars, passing for 240 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 112 yards and one score.
Utah tailback Quinton Ganther averages an even 100.0 yards per game, but the Tech defense has allowed just one player to reach the 100-yard mark in the last 19 games (Reggie Merriweather of Clemson). One of the Utes' top receivers is junior Brian Hernandez (31 catches, 634 yards, 3 TD), who began his career as a walk-on at Georgia Tech in 2002. He left Tech after one semester and ended up at Utah, via Arizona State and Pima Community College.
Defensively, one of Utah's top players is defensive back Eric Weddle, the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year. That could make for an interesting matchup between Weddle and Tech all-America wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who leads the Jackets with 52 catches for 869 yards and six touchdowns.
"Weddle has made a ton of plays for them this year," said Gailey. "He's played corner, he's played nickel, he's played safety. It sounds like he'll play corner against us. And they've got some excellent defensive linemen, especially their two interior tackles.
"Defensively, they're pretty active. They play a lot of man coverage, but you've got to be able beat everything. They make you win offensively. They make you earn it all the way down the field."
Tech quarterback Reggie Ball, who was the MVP of last year's bowl victory over Syracuse, has passed for 1,907 yards and 10 touchdowns. He is also the Jackets' third-leading rusher (379 yards, 4 TD) behind the tailback tandem of P.J. Daniels, a second-team all-ACC selection with 821 yards and three touchdowns, and Tashard Choice, with 512 yards and six TD.
Tech and Utah have never met in football. The two teams have one common opponent this season in North Carolina. Tech defeated the Tar Heels, 27-21, while Utah fell, 31-17.
Tech is one of just six schools in the nation to play in a bowl game each of the last nine years, along with Florida State, Virginia Tech, Florida, Georgia and Michigan. On their current streak, the Yellow Jackets have played in the 1997 Carquest Bowl, 1999 and 2000 Toyota Gator Bowls, 2001 Seattle Bowl, 2002 Silicon Valley Classic, 2004 Humanitarian Bowl and 2004 Champs Sports Bowl, posting a 5-3 record. Tech's longest previous streak was six straight bowl games from 1951-56 under legendary head coach Bobby Dodd.
The Yellow Jackets enter the game with the nation's best winning percentage in bowl games among teams with 20 or more bowl appearances. Tech is 22-11 (.667) in bowl games, ahead of Southern California, (28-15, .652) and Penn State (23-12-2, .649). The Jackets' 22 bowl victories rank sixth all-time.
Georgia Tech will be making its second post-season trip to the Bay Area in the last four years. The Jackets fell to Fresno State, 30-21, in the 2002 Silicon Valley Classic. Tech has played a total of six games in the state of California and posted a 2-4 record, including an 8-7 victory over California in the 1929 Rose Bowl.
"I think our team is excited about the destination," said Gailey. "Most of our guys have never been to San Francisco, so it will be a new experience for them.
"You want this to be a reward. You want them to have a good time and to enjoy where they are. We've got a game to play - we realize the importance of that and we want to play well. But I want them to enjoy the experience, too.
"There was initial disappointment, only because it's so much tougher for our families and our fans to get to the game. It certainly wasn't anything with this bowl or San Francisco, just the thought of travelling so far. But we have the 24-hour rule - get over it and let's get ready to play the game. And I know our guys will be ready to play."