Aug. 31, 2004
The Georgia Tech football team will open the 2004 season in the friendly confines of Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field as Samford University comes to Atlanta on Saturday for a 1 p.m. non-conference match-up. The Yellow Jackets are 5-0 all-time versus the Bulldogs, outscoring them 152-0, although the last meeting between them came in 1945.
"This is a lot better," said head coach Chan Gailey on opening the season in Bobby Dodd Stadium. "You would much rather play at home to open the season. Everybody would, but half the teams don't get to."
The game will not be televised but can be heard on the ISP-Georgia Tech Radio Network, including Atlanta flagship WQXI-AM 790 The Zone.
Tech takes on the role of heavy favorite against Samford this Saturday versus a I-AA opponent.
"I think that you have to realize where we are," said Gailey on motivating the team against every opponent. "Every team is different. Some teams you have to do that with, others you don't. I think our football team, and the thing that I have talked about all offseason, is learning to dominate every time you step out there. Learning to play at a high level no matter who the opponent is. Learning to treat every game as a playoff game. That's where we are as a football team."
The Bulldogs kicked off the season last weekend with a win over West Alabama, 34-20, in Birmingham, Ala. Samford's Efrem Hill, formerly of Atlanta's North Springs High School, caught nine passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Bulldog attack.
Two-year starter Ray Nelson had a superb effort at quarterback, finishing the game 24-of-31 for 321 yards and five touchdowns. On the defensive side of the ball, free safety Cortland Finnegan tallied two interceptions to keep the West Alabama offense at bay.
"That receiver over there [Efrem Hill], the quarterback [Ryan Nelson] over there, the safety over there [Cortland Finnegan], those guys can play," said Gailey. "Where you struggle on that level is most of the time is finding the big dominant linemen on both sides of the ball. You find guys that are fighters and tough guys and good players, but they are a little lighter and a little shorter than you find at the major colleges. But the skilled positions-corners, defensive backs, safeties, linebackers, running backs, wide receivers-they are very comparable."
The head coach at Samford in 1993, Gailey knows how big a win for the Bulldogs would be over the Yellow Jackets.
"When I was there we played Auburn," said Gailey. "We hung in there for a little while and then we wore down and got beat, but we hung in there. What a win like that would do for small program, you just can't put it into words what it would mean. For any I-AA team to be an I-A team, that' s a big lick for that school."
The charge of stopping the Bulldog offensive attack will be the Rambling Wreck defense. Leading the Jackets will be a core secondary that is headlined by All-ACC performer James Butler. Butler is accompanied by corner backs Reuben Houston, Dennis Davis and Kenny Scott, along with strong safety Dawan Landry. These five players accounted for 12 of the team's 13 interceptions a year ago.
"We will have to mix and match to get enough pressure on the passer because this team we are playing can throw the football," said Gailey. "We have to find ways to put pressure on the passer and stop the run. Those are the two biggest issues. We have had some pretty good continuity since we got Dawan Landry back in the lineup about a week ago. We have really been able to develop our continuity on the defensive side of the ball with a couple of exceptions on the defensive line."
Tech has won four of its last five openers, despite a 24-13 loss at Brigham Young in last season's opener. The Jackets have won their last five home openers and are 16-2 in their last 18, tasting defeat last in 1998 when future ACC member Boston College defeated Tech, 41-31.
Heading into the opening contest, Tech will have to deal with some shifting on the offensive line. The Jackets lost offensive linemen Hugh Reilly (Tennessee Titans) and Nat Dorsey (Minnesota Vikings) to the National Football League and have battled some injuries throughout camp.
"It doesn't matter what the situation is," said Gailey. "It doesn't matter who you are playing or when you are playing. If you have this much disruption in your offensive line you're going to have issues. Our guys are working hard. They are doing a good job, but it's not the same when you don't have the same five out there for any successive days in a row. I don't think we've had the same five out there more than three days in a row."
A steady force for the Rambling Wreck on the O-line will be Andy Tidwell-Neal. Tidwell-Neal fills the shoes of Reilly at the center position and brings experience to the front five, starting in every game a year ago at guard.
"He is probably the one piece of the puzzle that locks it all together, so to speak," said Gailey. "He directs people. He gets people lined up. He can now direct everything and that has been a big plus, and will stay a big plus, for our offensive line. When we are in this state of flux on our offensive line, he keeps everything on an even keel. I don't think you can understate what he does."
With so many changes on the offensive line, sophomore quarterback Reggie Ball and running back P.J.Daniels will have to continue on each other's success from last season. Ball, the 2003 ACC Rookie of the Year, has a full season under his belt and has the conference's leading rusher in the back field in Daniels, an All-ACC honoree.
"I don't think anyone realizes it that much," said Gailey. "The guy that probably realizes it the most is Reggie [Ball] because of the protection situations and making sure he is protected in the pocket. You can't play if you don't feel comfortable in the pocket. I think that could be an issue that we will have to look at and address during the game Saturday. But the other players are trying to learn what they are doing themselves. They are not worried about another position, just trying to do their job. So they don't pay attention to it that much."
Another key void that Tech is trying to fill this season will be at tight end, replacing J.P. Foshi (New York Jets). After a very strong camp and three solid years of reserve play for the Yellow Jackets, senior Darius Williams is ready to step up and take over that position.
"He is a part of it," said Gailey. "He is a big part of pass protection and the running game. Darius has come on and solidified the number one spot there at this time. That's probably given us a little bit more continuity with the tackles on either side when we go left or right. He is a senior and knows the calls, so he has given us a little bit more there."
Andy Tidwell-Neal will try and lead Tech to its fifth win in six tries in home openers.