Rumors swirled around Bobby Dodd Stadium before Saturday's kickoff as the crowd wondered: where's No. 1? Starting (and increasingly popular) quarterback Reggie Ball was not on the sideline, and warming up in his place was some kid with No. 13 on his shirt.
Ball was said to have migraines...meningitis...a separated shoulder...killed in Vietnam. A blood-red full moon rose behind the east stands, and the air fairly crackled with bad mojo. And lo, the spectre of a loss to a middling Big East squad swooped above Grant Field, cackling and waving his scythe.
And then Taylor Bennett took his first collegiate snap, threw the ball to Calvin Johnson, and watched the fun. Johnson caught a simple curl route, dodged a defender, and turned on his rocket-assist boosters for a 42-yard touchdown.
That was Bennett's highlight for the evening, but it was enough as the Jackets went on to win 28-13 in front of an announced crowd of 48,770.
Bennett, a redshirt freshman who didn't play in Tech's first two nailbiters, learned that he'd be starting on Saturday afternoon. Ball had been feeling sick late in the week, and went to the hospital early Saturday for tests, coach Chan Gailey said. Tech officials were tightlipped with further details, feeding the alarmist rumor-mill.
Bennett, who knew Ball was basically all right, had his own worries.
"I didn't really feel anything," Bennett said. "I was just like, ‘Okay, here we go.' Calvin worked his magic and took it to the house and did his thing and we just went from there."
Chris Woods had set up the one-play drive with a 48-yard kickoff return, after Connecticut showed its mettle in an opening drive for a field goal. Despite UConn tailback Terry Caulley's 52-yard burst, it was clear after the first two possessions which side had the big talent advantage.
But execution on offense proved difficult for both teams, as they combined for six turnovers and 17 penalties.
Tech's defense asserted itself, shutting down Caulley after that one long run, and pounding the stuffing out of quarterback Matt Bonislawski. Bonislawski, a tough redshirt junior, absorbed punishment like Rocky Balboa and never flinched. But he had a tough time finding receivers while looking out his ear hole, going 7 for 25 with three interceptions.
Tech's defense held Connecticut to only 196 yards of offense, 67 in the air. When Bonislawski wasn't being knocked flat while throwing, he was having his head handed to him on option runs.
"That's basically what our defense does," Gailey said. "We don't stand there and say that we're going to bend but not break. We're going to make the other team earn every yard but they're going to get pressured on every play."
A bad punt snap led to Connecticut's only touchdown, after a penalty gave them the ball at Tech's 5. That lead held up for about three minutes, before cornerback Kenny Scott stepped in front of hitch pass and took it to Connecticut's house to put Tech ahead for good, 14-13.
Bennett didn't fair much better after that first pass. He finished 11 of 30 for 142 yards and that first touchdown. But he threw no interceptions, avoided a heavy pass rush for only two sacks, and was lucky enough to fumble toward his own linemen the one time he put the ball on the ground.
With Taylor having trouble finding open receivers, and hitting them when he saw them, Tech turned to tailback P. J. Daniels. Daniels responded with his fourth straight 100-yard game, despite alternating series with Oklahoma transfer Tashard Choice, who gained 89 yards himself.
Regardless of who calls signals, "we just come out and pound and pound and pound," Daniels said. "That's what Coach Gailey likes doing, and I don't think we are going to stop doing that at all."
Tech takes its first 3-0 start under Gailey to Blacksburg next week to take on No. 10 Virginia Tech. Depending on how Ball responds to treatment, Gailey said, the junior could be able to duel with Marcus Vick for a Top 10 ranking and the inside track to the ACC championship game.
If Ball can't go, Bennett has earned himself a challenge that makes Saturday's unexpected debut look like an afternoon at the library. His teammates say he's up to it.
"If Reggie comes back, that's great," said safety Chris Reis. "If not, then Taylor can do it."