The 2006 match-up between the Irish and Georgia Tech could well be determined by the battle along the lines and the Irish's ability to stop the tandem of QB Reggie Ball and second team All-America WR Calvin Johnson. In 2005, the Yellow Jackets managed to control the line on both sides of the ball, registering 36 sacks while only giving up 10. Returning four of five starters on the offensive line and five of seven starters in the front seven, both units figure to again be strong in 2006. Redshirt freshman OT Andrew Gardner, who garnered freshman All-America honors and All-ACC honors in 2005 and G Matt Rhodes, a 2004 All-ACC selection, lead an offensive line which had three new starters in 2005 and figures to only get better.
If the Irish can protect Brady Quinn from the Tech front seven, which does lose all-ACC LB Gerris Wilkinson and 2005 sack leader DE Eric Henderson, the Irish should be able to exploit a secondary which will return only one starter in 2006, CB Kenny Scott. Overall, the Georgia Tech defense gave up 317.5 yards a game in 2005 and registered 21 interceptions along with those 36 sacks en route to a fine campaign. Two-year starter LB KaMichael Hall is an athletic playmaking linebacker who had four sacks, two interceptions, and a forced fumble in 2005. The other returning LB, Phillip Wheeler, added a team-leading four interceptions. Three- year starting DT Mansfield Wrotto and his 310-pound frame anchor the defensive line.
Ball and Johnson are the key players returning on the offensive side of the ball for Georgia Tech, which averaged 18.5 points a game in 2005. Although Ball completed only 48% of his passes in 2005 and threw 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, he also rushed for 381 yards and four touchdowns. Getting pressure on Ball, and preventing him from having the time to be creative and engineer the big play like Troy Smith in the Fiesta Bowl, will be crucial to an Irish victory.
Johnson was rated in the top three receivers nationally out of high school and has so far lived up to the hype, catching 54 balls for 888 yards and six touchdowns in his sophomore season. At 6-4, 230, with legitimate 4.4 speed, he is a nightmare for anyone to match-up with. Second leading WR Damarius Bilbo (40 rec, 591 yds, 2 TD in 2005) graduates while returning TE George Cooper had only eight catches in six starts last season.
As for the rushing game, Georgia Tech loses second-team all-ACC running back P. J. Daniels, who rushed for 930 yards in 2005. Former Oklahoma player Tashard Choice (513 yds, 6 TD in 2005) appears to have the inside track for the starting position over junior Rashaun Grant. With a strong offensive line paving the way, Ball is always a threat to take off, and with Johnson's speed downfield, Georgia Tech will present a balanced attack on offense.
Special Teams was a weakness for Georgia Tech in 2005 as opponents averaged over three yards more than the Yellow Jackets on both kick and punt returns. Kicker Travis Bell had a dismal 2005 campaign, making only 11-of-21 field goals following a 2004 campaign in which he had been a Lou Groza award semifinalist.
The Irish and the Yellow Jackets have split the two most recent meetings, with the Irish winning 17-13 in 1997 at Notre Dame Stadium, and Georgia Tech collecting a 35-28 win in the Gator Bowl the following season.