Ed. note: Wes Durham was the play-by-play announcer for Vanderbilt football and basketball from 1992-95. He left to take the Georgia Tech job in 1995, but remains close ties to many at Vanderbilt as well as VandyMania. We asked him to give VandyMania readers some inside info on Georgia Tech, and here's what he told us.
Coach Chan Gailey was pretty prophetic back in August, when he said "We're gonna have some highs this year, and we're gonna have some lows."
Right out of the gate Georgia Tech had a game against a pretty good BYU team that, if they don't turn the ball over four times, they have a pretty good chance to win. Then they came back and played one of the best games of my nine years here [a 17-3 win over Auburn]. I'd be hard-pressed to find a better defensive performance by Tech.
Then they went to Florida State, without great expectations. (I figure the key in going to Tallahassee is, just try not to get anybody hurt for the year!) But I think they that game may have given them a false sense of confidence. They played offensively just OK, but the defense was great. They just ran out of steam [losing 14-13]. Last week [39-3 loss to Clemson] was a mental game as much as anything else. This team just thought it could beat Clemson, and just didn't have the same edge or intensity it had earlier. It got shown the door quickly at its own place, which was no fun.
As much improved as Vanderbilt is-- and I definitely think they are, especially from 15 games ago-- Saturday night is as much about Georgia Tech as it is about whom they're playing. I know Vanderbilt fans are frustrated too by the Ole Miss game-- they played so well, only to have that kid kick a 54-yard field goal! Then Auburn starts out as a rock-em, sock-em football game, then Auburn gets on that touchdown brigade. I think there might be some similarities there.
Starting quarterback Reggie Ball (6-0, 180 freshman, No. 1, right) is a good football player who's athletic-- as opposed to Joe Hamilton, whom I thought was a great athlete who played football. Reggie has great football IQ-- he knows bad plays from good plays. He lacks one thing-- experience. Saturday will only be his fifth game. With experience, I think he's got a chance to be a special player at Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech kind of specializes in these types of quarterbacks-- Hamilton the obvious one, then Shawn Jones, and on back into the 70's with guys like Jerry Lanier or Eddie McAshan. These are smaller guys, maybe who were asked to play another position, who relish the opportunity to "get people back" and play quarterback. Maybe somebody said they weren't big enough.
Reggie has a surprisingly strong arm for a guy under six feet. He can beat you with the pass or the run. He makes really good decisions for a guy who's quarterbacked four games. The offense has struggled statistically-- he's got only one touchdown and two interceptions-- but I can see the progress he makes each week. He's pretty mature for an 18-year-old. To have won the respect of a veteran offensive line, and some veteran tight ends and receivers, says something.
Damarius Bilbo (6-3, 225 QB/WR, lost starting QB job to Ball in preseason) was hurt last week, and wasn't able to play against Clemson. I think they are going to try to put him in the packages for this Saturday. Folks will likely see him Saturday, probably as a wide receiver-- but with him, I don't ever count out anything. Last year he was essentially a running back playing quarterback.
Jonathan Smith (5-10, 189 WR) had nine catches for 170 yards vs. Clemson-- that's the second game in which he's had nine catches. He's a playmaker. They'll get the ball to him in a variety of ways. He can score from anywhere on the field. The one bright spot in the offense's struggles is that Jonathan has been able to make some plays. He has no touchdowns, but he has set up touchdowns.
Jonathan has been a calming influence on Reggie Ball-- as has A.J. Suggs (604, 215 senior QB, started vs. Vandy last year), oddly enough. Behind the scenes, A.J. has a good feel for where he is in his career, and where Reggie is. Because of what this team went through in the off-season (losing 10 players to academics), some strange bedfellows arose. You have guys pulling together.
Coach Gailey said the Clemson loss was a "valuable experience", but that if you can have it in Game Four rather than Game Twelve, maybe good things can result from it. Last year it happened in Game Twelve vs. Georgia [a 51-7 loss]. It will be interesting to see where Tech is mentally and confidence-wise on Saturday. Right now they're kind of "back to square one."
This team is a whole lot younger than the team Vanderbilt saw in Game One last year-- not only in terms of where they are class-wise, but in terms of experience. The experience level of this team vs. that team is not even close. Of course, that can be a two-way street. If a veteran team really has it going, that can be a real positive; if a veteran team is not doing well, that can be a not-so-good thing.
Last year (a 45-3 win for Georgia Tech) it was the opener for both schools-- this year it's the fifth game. Both teams have had some highs and lows already. This year Vanderbilt is more settled as a team... they know what Cutler can do. They know what McKenzie and Doster can do. They know what Erik Davis is about. They know Osemwegie's a good player. They know Jovan Haye is capable of dominating a game, like he did last week. If they have questions, it's maybe in the kicking game, although it sounds like they've gotten that mostly settled.
Tech, on the other hand, still has questions. We have yet to see Tech get 300 yards of total offense. Tech hasn't really put points on the board in the last seven regular-season games. Now, you can see pieces. Reggie Ball is going to be a good player, but running-wise, there's no player back there like Tony Hollings last year.
You've got playmakers on the perimeter. You've got a good offensive line. I think the defense is as good as has been around here in a long time. If the numbers hold, it would be the fifth- or sixth-best defense against the run in the last 25 years. The personality of this team is more about defense.
Last year Tony Hargrove was still here, Jeremy Muyres was still here... those guys are gone, yet Tech may have improved themselves athletically. Tech understands better what [defensive coordinator] Jon Tenuta is trying to get done.
Bobby Johnson does so many things offensively that force you to play assignment football-- that will be a challenge for Georgia Tech. They are a team that likes to create problems with speed and quickness, because they can't with size and strength, just based on numbers.
Offensively... Tech has got to find a way to run the football better than they've been doing. That said, they've seen some of the best defenses in the country in Auburn and Florida State-- and they saw a Clemson team on a mission last Saturday. Now what happens, against a Vanderbilt team that I know has some very good players on defense? I will be very curious to watch.
Related story: The man behind the Yellow Jacket mike, August 25, 2002