It's a nightmare for the Mountaineers, who don't have a corner that can match Johnson. But neither did Clemson, and the Tigers held the future NFL player to nothing in receiving and even less on the ground, where an end around netted negative-four yards. Part of it was Clemson's ball control. The No. 25 Tigers 9-4) gashed the ‘Jackets for 321 net rushing yards in tallying 31 points while forcing the Tech offense into the one-dimensional passing game by holding it to 88 rush yards on 37 attempts (2.4 per carry). The idea, then, is to move the ball efficiently – something West Virginia expects to do – and get an early edge. Then what's left is simply bottling the ACC's top rusher heading into this season in Tashard Choice, an Oklahoma transfer that has rushed for 1,204 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Considering that no player has ran well against WVU this season, it reasons that the Mountaineers can limit Choice and even sporadic but mobile quarterback Reggie Ball, who has had solid games and games in which he has, at the very least, bogged down the offense. Of late, Ball has been miserable, leading Tech to zero touchdowns in three of its last four games and completing just nine of 29 passes with two picks in a 9-6 loss to Wake Forest in the ACC title game. Against rival Georgia, Ball went six of 22 for no scores and another two interceptions with four sacks. The combined two-game totals: 15 completions in 44 passes (34.1 percent) with four interceptions, no touchdowns and five sacks.
Ball either likes to stay in the pocket, or is coached to do so, because he has rushed for an average of just 25.7 yards per game when his 199 yards lost in sacks are factored. That will help West Virginia's rush, which should be able to reach Ball with different blitzes from the outside and stunts along the line. Tackling the slick, 5-11 Stone Mountain native is another issue. If WVU can limit his effectiveness, that will directly translate to holding Johnson to a manageable number of catches and yards.
"He is going to be great," West Virginia corner Larry Williams said. "Obviously, he is an All-American. He is 6-5, 230-plus or whatever. He is a gifted athlete and you really need to focus on him. But you cannot only focus on him. They have a great running back and quarterback and a nice O-line. They have their man in No. 21 and they have other athletes, too, like us. You can't focus all there, but you have to be aware of him."
Think WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez won't call former co-worker and Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden to see exactly how the Tigers limited Johnson, while also holding in check a ground game that amassed 1,971 yards this year? The two, which last coached together in 2000, when Rodriguez was the Clemson offensive coordinator, would likely speak anyway. With WVU facing Tech, Rodriguez is sure to pry for the privy info on the main Yellow Jacket threat.
Add in that West Virginia cornerback Guesly Dervil knows Clemson defensive backs Jamal Fudge and Eric Sampson from their playing days together at Edward H. White High in Jacksonville, and the cell phone minutes will be scarce. Dervil, who will play in his native town for the first time in his career, also knows Georgia short corner Bryan Evans, another White High grad. Ironically, Clemson and Georgia were the two teams with the most success against Johnson, the Bulldogs having held the Tyrone, Ga. native to just two catches for 13 yards.
"It has been blowing up. Everybody is calling me," Dervil said. "I am excited. We'll do fine; we'll be all right. We are not going to do anything different. I watched the Georgia game when my homeboy played them and they did fine. It's Calvin Johnson. He is their big man."
Georgia and Clemson have the advantage of better secondary play and a scheme that allows it to fit up opposing wideouts more effectively than does WVU's zone-based approach that often leaves the center of the field open in return for demolishing an opposing run game. So only so much of what Dervil's trio can tip him off to or what Bowden tells Rodriguez will be useful. But the word on Johnson is that he has hot and cold games, and that the foes often don't matter.
After his shutout versus Clemson, he combined for 32 catches and 457 yards, a 76.7-yards per game average, and five touchdowns in the last six games. But the variance is staggering. He had eight receptions for 117 yards against 11-2 Wake Forest, but just three for 13 against hapless North Carolina. The numbers, while solid, are not spectacular when one considers four of the final six teams Georgia Tech faced – all of the games after Clemson – combined to win just 12 games against 36 losses. The other two were Wake Forest and rival Georgia, and Johnson caught just the two passes for 13 yards against them both.
"When the ball goes up in the air, it's all about seeing what happens," Williams said. "Do that, and it will be fine. There's no worry about zone defense or man defense at that point. Whoever is with him, go make a play on the ball in the air."
And maybe pray that Ball tosses a few bad ones.