Georgia Tech lost their season opener to BYU 24-13 before returning home to beat Auburn 17-3. Last Saturday night, the Yellow Jackets lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in Tallahassee 14-13 by giving up two touchdowns in the last 8 minutes of the game. Those past two games have given the Yellow Jackets a newfound confidence.
"We looked the 17th-ranked team in the nation square in the eye and the 10th-ranked team in the nation square in the eye and came out 1-1", Head Coach Chan Gailey said Sunday.
Georgia Tech holds a 43-22-2 advantage in the series overall with Clemson, which began in 1898. Tech has won four of the last six meetings, including two of the last three games at Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field. However, the Tigers won last year's game, 24-19, at Clemson and also captured the last meeting in Atlanta with a 47-44 overtime win in 2001 with some heroics from Woody Dantzler.
Last year's five-point win by Clemson broke a streak of six consecutive meetings that were decided by exactly three points. Eleven of the 13 meetings since 1990 have been decided by five points or fewer.
This will be a huge game for both teams on Saturday night. Both Tech and Clemson are vying for the upper half of the ACC standings and a bowl bid. Both teams are not going to achieve that goal, most likely. Therefore, it is imperative for these two teams to beat the other to get an early ACC win and position themselves for the upper half of the conference early on.
Tech is a slight favorite to win this game based on the odds makers.
Here are my 5 keys to a Clemson victory Saturday night:
P. J. Daniels is quietly off to a stellar start to the 2003 season. Everybody, including myself, thought that the loss of Tony Hollings to academic issues ended Tech's hopes for a good running game this season. But Daniels, a former walk on, has established himself as one of the better backs in the league statistically early this season.
Daniels is 3rd in the ACC in rushing, averaging 70.0 yards per game. His 113 yard performance against Florida State opened eyes across the league considering the talent on defense in Tallahassee.
Clemson must find a way to stuff Daniels on Saturday night to force true freshman Reggie Ball to throw the ball. If Daniels is able to rush for 100+ yards, Ball will have the benefit of play action to buy him some time and wide receiver separation. Anytime a true freshman is playing quarterback, you want to make sure you don't allow him to get comfortable throwing the ball and reading defenses. If Daniels can't run Saturday night against Clemson, the pressure will build on Ball.
The Clemson defense has not been outstanding stopping the run in 2003, especially in the middle of the field. That must change Saturday night if the Tigers are to pull the upset.
Georgia Tech's offense has been anemic at times in 2003. The Yellow Jackets are averaging less than 250 yards of total offense per game, albeit against 2 pretty good defenses in Auburn and Florida State.
Because Georgia Tech is averaging only 14 points per game this season, it is imperative that Clemson makes Tech earn all the points that they get on Saturday. For starters, that means no turnovers on Tech's side of the field. Giving the Yellow Jackets the ball with only 20 or 30 yards to get into the end zone plays right into the hands of their conservative offensive approach.
On the flip side, the Clemson offense must move the chains with consistency to keep field position in their favor. 3 and outs versus this Georgia Tech defense are a very real possibility, but must be avoided on every series if possible. Even if the Tigers can't score on a particular procession, it is important that Clemson be able to move the chains and establish field position to keep Tech pinned back when they get the ball on offense.
Add to it the fact that the Yellow Jackets don't play a ton of players on defense because they are thin, and you begin to understand that they can be worn down late in the game IF you control the ball in the time of procession category.
Red Zone Offense
Georgia Tech's defensive statistics are gaudy to say the least. Tech leads the ACC and ranks 16th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 72.3 yards per game on the ground. The Jackets also lead the ACC with 11 sacks while ranking second in total defense (281.0 ypg/22nd NCAA) and scoring defense (13.7 ppg/19th NCAA).
Tech completely frustrated Auburn two weeks ago and Florida State last week. Neither team was able to complete their drives for points (minus FSU's last two drives). Unless Georgia Tech simply loses focus, Clemson is going to have a hard time driving the football up and down the field all day versus Tech's defense.
"I think we're doing a great job of keeping people off balance. We're blitzing them, and then we're not blitzing them. We're playing zone, then we're playing man. We're coming off the edge, then we're coming up the middle. People have to prepare for a multitude of looks when they play us," Gailey said.
When Clemson does cross mid field, the Tigers must make it to the red zone and score touchdowns. Against some of the better defense Clemson has played the last 2 years (FSU, Maryland, N.C. State, Georgia) the offense has moved the ball at times. The problem has been finishing the drives and scoring touchdowns. Against some of those better offenses, Clemson needs to score touchdowns just to stay in the game. But against Tech, if Clemson can score a few touchdowns we could very well win the game because of Tech's inability to score points on offense.
Either way, every single opportunity the Tigers have to score must be taken advantage of Saturday night. If not, Clemson will head back up I-85 with a loss in the column.
Charlie In Charge
Charlie Whitehurst has been spectacular in the last two games against Furman and Middle Tennessee State throwing the football. Whitehurst has completed over 70% of his passes for almost 600 yards. His only interception in that span was a tipped ball at the line of scrimmage, which means his decision making has been top notch in both games.
The quality of defense Saturday steps up a great deal from that of the previous two weeks. While it may be too much to ask that Whitehurst continues to complete passes at a 70% clip, he needs to be at or above the 60% mark if the Tigers are to move the ball consistently against the Yellow Jackets. Tommy Bowden and company have opened up the vertical passing game the last two weeks, especially the deep balls and the mid range balls to the center of the field. This has softened up the corners, not allowing the corners to sit on the curl routes that Clemson over used against Georgia.
Expect Clemson to throw the ball over the middle and deep to Currie and to keep Reuben Houston and company honest. This will allow for softer coverage on the corners, which should open up the curls and out patterns to Kevin Youngblood all day. If Tech is not able to play press man on the wide outs because of Whitehurst completing passes in the center of the field, the Tigers will be able to have a controlled passing game on the perimeter against Tech. That formula will spell success.
Clemson has kept the misdirection and trickery to a minimum the past two weeks, mainly because they did not need it against the quality of competition that they faced. While the playbook was opened wide Saturday against MTSU, this should not be seen as a negative heading to Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets, led by coordinator Jon Tenuta, have a whole bunch of formation and plays to watch this week on video tape.
I'm sure Tenuta will cover it all and have the Tech defense ready to play. But, the added vertical passing game implementation the Tigers employed last week may keep Tech busy while Tommy Bowden and his offensive coaches dip into their trickery this week. Expect to see some misdirection in the form of reverses and boot legs to keep the speedy Tech defense off balance. And don't be shocked if you see something you don't expect Saturday on offense or special teams.
All of which are ripe for success if Tech bogs itself down in planning for the vertical passing game the Tigers have begun to use. The Tigers need to make a big play on something deceiving to break the morale of the Tech defense, and more importantly, to keep them honest.
Clemson has made some solid strides on the offensive side of the ball in the past two weeks. Defensively, the Tigers have shown cracks in stopping the running game, which could spell disaster Saturday night.
The question I keep asking myself is "Can Clemson move the ball with a controlled passing game against Tech?" IF the answer to that question is yes, then the Tigers have a real shot of winning this game. If the answer is no…I don't see any way Clemson can win.
And, if you look at the past 5 games that Clemson has played good defenses with Charlie at quarterback (Maryland, Texas Tech, Georgia) you will see that the Tigers have not been consistent enough on offense to keep the team in the game.
This game sets up mentally in Clemson's favor, since the Yellow Jackets are coming off a heartbreaking loss to FSU. I don't think that will matter Saturday.
Hence, my prediction. It would not shock me or the world if Clemson wins Saturday night, but I think Georgia Tech goes home smiling.
Georgia Tech 20 Clemson 17
5 Keys To Stinging The Bees
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