ATLANTA - Georgia Tech has officially begun preparing for its 10th consecutive bowl game, where they will meet No. 12 West Virginia at the Gator Bowl. The game will be played at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla., on New Years Day beginning at 1:00 p.m. and nationally televised by CBS ().
Tech (9-4, 7-1 ACC) is coming off a tough 9-6 loss to then No. 16 Wake Forest in the ACC Championship game. The Jackets running back Tashard Choice recorded his sixth consecutive 100-yard rushing game and eighth in the past nine games with the 104-yard effort against the Demon Deacons. Head coach Chan Gailey is now working on getting the team ready for WVU.
"They've come back and worked on the field," said Gailey. "Today was the first day that we went out there and worked on a game plan. The others (practices) were just trying to stay in some kind of rhythm. With a week break in between, you're just trying to get back into it."
The Mountaineers (10-2, 5-2 Big East) defeated then No. 13 Rutgers 41-39 in a triple overtime game. In the win, sophomore running back Steve Slaton ran for 112 yards, topping the 100-yard mark for the 15th time in his career. Slaton has rushed for 16 touchdowns on the season and has caught two more.
The Jackets offense is led by two-time first-team all-America Calvin Johnson. The junior receiver is ranked fourth in the nation with 13 touchdown catches this season, a Tech season record. He also leads the ACC in receptions (67) and receiving yards (1,016) earning first-team all-ACC honors for the third consecutive year.
Choice leads the ACC in rushing, averaging 100.3 yards per game (17th in the nation), including 110.3 ypg in ACC games, which also leads the league. He has rushed for 1,304 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Choice will be important as the Jackets will try to keep the Mountaineers offense off the field. Senior quarterback Reggie Ball leads the ACC with 20 touchdown passes and also has two rushing scores for a total of 22.
"It's just us," said Johnson. "We feel that we need to do that because we haven't in the last several weeks. We know our defense will contain them. We just need to come up with some big plays and put points on the board."
West Virginia's defense currently ranks 22nd nationally with 29 sacks this season. Senior defensive back Eric Wicks has 69 tackles on the year with 11 tackles for loss and leads the team with seven sacks. Senior linebacker Kevin McLee leads the team with 75 tackles and has 5.5 tackles for loss.
"They run a little bit of an unorthodox defense, so we're spending a lot more time (watching) film, seeing their tendencies, but they're fast, and they have a big and physical defense," said fullback Mike Cox.
Senior defensive tackle Joe Anoai, a first-team all-ACC selection, paces an excellent Tech defense. For the season, Anoai has 37 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries. Another senior, linebacker KaMichael Hall, leads the team with 81 tackles. He has also recorded nine tackles for loss, 4 sacks and has recovered two fumbles.
"They do such a good job with execution and faking the ball that you're going to get out of position sometimes," said Gailey. "Recovery speed is the key. If you get a half or full step out of position, you're going to have to recover and that's what our team defense does as a whole. They recover well. We're not in the right spot every time, but with our speed and quickness we're able to redirect and get back to the ball and keeping it from being a big play. That's going to be a giant key, and that's what Philip (Wheeler) does really well. People forget it's only his first year playing middle linebacker."
The defense will have their hands full with Slaton and sophomore quarterback Pat White. The tandem has each rushed for over 1,000 yards this season. Slaton is third in the nation averaging 144.4 yards per game and is second in all-purpose yards with 172.8 ypg. Blocking for the two speedsters is first-team all-America center Dan Mozes.
"It's innovative," said Gailey of the West Virginia offense. "What he has done is taking his personnel and put them in the position to be very successful. He's got the big fullback (Owen Schmitt) and he uses that guy very well. He's got Slaton and White and he uses them very well. That's the key to me. Are you taking the guys you got and putting them into a position to be successful and he's done a great job of that. He may not have those two guys in two years, but I will bet you that whoever they have, he will put them in a position to be successful."
The Georgia Tech special teams have been excellent this year due to the development of punter Durant Brooks. The junior, a second-team all-America honoree, is second in the nation in net punting at 40.97 yards per game. His gross-average of 45.5 yards per kick leads the ACC and ranks fourth in the nation. Junior place-kicker Travis Bell has connected on his last eight field goal attempts and has been good on all 38 of his point after attempts this season.