Defensive Speed vs. Backfield Health

Georgia Tech's defensive speed against a full-strength West Virginia backfield is a key match-up when one notes that the Yellow Jackets are the second-fastest team WVU will have faced this season. The fastest? South Florida.

The Bulls, using great lateral quickness and two Mountaineer turnovers inside the red zone, forced four turnovers – scoring six defensive points on one – and held West Virginia to 132 yards rushing on 37 carries in a 24-19 upset win. Tech possess similar speed, and has allowed foes an average of just 16.8 points per game and 88.9 yards rushing. That ranks the Jackets 20th and 11th in the nation, respectively. Georgia Tech has held three of its last four opponents without a touchdown and more than half its schedule to 10 or fewer points.

The worry is that, like South Florida, 25th-ranked Tech will use its speed to simply run to the ball carrier on No. 13 WVU's stretch plays off the zone read, a major part of the offense made even larger in the USF game when head coach Rich Rodriguez choose to keep running it instead of taking what the Bulls gave in the pass game. Quarterback Patrick White and tailback Steve Slaton, hurting with various injuries including turf toe and a bad wrist, respectively, were held to a combined 60 yards. If Tech (9-4) can emulate that style and alignment of USF and bottle the run game, and WVU (10-2) again gets stubborn, the Rambling Wreck has a chance for an upset because the match-up seems to fit Tech's undersized defense. That formula and alignment fits well, according to Tech linebacker Phillip Wheeler, with a perimeter-based running team. The major variable is the health of West Virginia's backfield.

"Their speed is the most effective thing from them that I see so far," said WVU's White, who added an ankle sprain to his list of ailments against USF. "That's a whole ‘nother thing there. South Florida's speed, I'd say, is a little higher level than Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech definitely runs around good. They have great coaching and great players, but comparing them to South Florida might be (a stretch) as far as speed. Not the way they prepare of perform, but the speed aspect."

Still, Tech is extremely fast, the one aspect head coach Chan Gailey said he liked about the match-up with the Mountaineers, who were very beat up at the end of the year in the offensive backfield. White had left turf toe and left ankle injuries. Slaton, who hurt his right wrist against Connecticut, isn't 100 percent he also has a loose bone chip in his right wrist that will require surgery in the offseason. He played the entire season with the problem this year. And fullback Owen Schmitt suffered a high left ankle sprain in the win over Cincinnati that was still bothering him in the season finale'. Schmitt, who has recovered fully from his knee tweak when he was hit late in the game against the Bearcats, had been unable to push off of the leg because of the lingering ankle problems, and thus could not create the blocking holes needed for Slaton, which severely bogged down the offense.

White noted that he would definitely be 100 percent by the bowl game. He described himself as 85-90 percent currently. Slaton should be near 100 percent on the left side, but will still obviously be unable to use the right wrist. Schmitt's status is unknown, but he will certainly be healthier after one month without a game. The three accounted for nearly all of West Virginia's offense this season until the Rutgers game, when backup quarterback Jarrett Brown started in place of White.

"That's a big thing for the offense to perform on all cylinders," said Slaton, recently named one of two WVU All-Americans this season. "We are the most deadly when we are all healthy. I look forward to the game. This will be like starting a new season for us with this."

West Virginia plans on a series of lighter practices during finals week this week, then will increase the difficulty and contact of the drills leading up to the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl, a 1 p.m. kickoff in Jacksonville. It will be the Mountaineers' sixth appearance in the game. They are 0-5 all-time and 0-2 in bowls against Georgia Tech, which gets more than half its recruits from the speed and skill states of Georgia and Florida.

"Your body can relax and recover," White said. "It's like the first game. Mentally, you don't take the approach you did the first game. But health-wise, we should get a lot of guys back, and that makes us more dangerous as a team."


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