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December 31, 2006

Gator Bowl: West Virginia vs. Georgia Tech

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Ever think about what All-America receiver Calvin Johnson could accomplish with a different quarterback throwing to him?

We're about to find out.

Reggie Ball's star-crossed career as Georgia Tech's quarterback reached a sudden conclusion earlier this month when the fourth-year starter was declared academically ineligible for the Gator Bowl.

That means sophomore Taylor Bennett will start at quarterback when the Yellow Jackets (9-4) face No. 13 West Virginia (10-2) at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla. (CBS, 1 p.m.).

In his only previous start, Bennett went 11-of-30 for 142 yards as Georgia Tech defeated Connecticut 28-13 last year.

West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said he didn't expect the quarterback change to alter the Yellow Jackets' game plan.

"They are still going to throw to the Johnson guys (Calvin and James), and they're still going to run it with (Tashard) Choice," Rodriguez said. "They've got enough weapons that missing Reggie Ball may hurt from an experience standpoint, but I don't think it will hurt them from a productivity standpoint."

Ball's critics might argue that his loss won't hurt Georgia Tech at all.

Although he led the Yellow Jackets to the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title this year and directed Georgia Tech's road upsets of Auburn and Miami last season, Ball struggled with consistency throughout his career.

Ball went 15-of-51 with four interceptions and no touchdown passes in his final two games as Georgia Tech fell to Georgia and Wake Forest. Ball's inaccuracy often wasted the prodigious talents of Calvin Johnson, who received the Biletnikoff Award that goes to the nation's top receiver.

This could mark Johnson's last game in a Georgia Tech uniform. The junior is expected to go early in the first round of next year's NFL Draft if he doesn't return to school next fall.

"It's not distracting me at all," Johnson said of his future plans. "I'll wait until the season and the bowl game are over before I start thinking about that stuff."

Although Ball's statistics don't look impressive, the Yellow Jackets could miss his experience and leadership. Georgia Tech's defense must try to overcome the loss of starting cornerback Kenny Scott, who also was declared academically ineligible for this game.

Even if they'd been at full strength, the Yellow Jackets would have been underdogs to West Virginia. The absences of Ball and Scott will make Georgia Tech's task that much tougher.

Georgia Tech has the unenviable assignment of stopping West Virginia quarterback Pat White and tailback Steve Slaton, assuming both are healthy enough to play. White missed the regular-season finale against Rutgers with a sprained ankle, while Slaton has been bothered by a deep thigh bruise.

White and Slaton have run for a combined 2,807 yards to give West Virginia the nation's second-ranked rushing offense.

Georgia couldn't stop this dynamic duo in last year's Sugar Bowl.

Now Georgia Tech gets its turn.

"I see a lot of speed in the backfield, but I think we can contain those guys if we execute what (defensive coordinator Jon) Tenuta puts in the playbook for us," Georgia Tech linebacker Philip Wheeler said. "We just have to contain those guys. A lot of defenses have tried and failed. Some have contained those guys. I think we can contain them because we can match up with them with our speed."

Gator Bowl: Georgia Tech (9-4) vs. West Virginia (10-2)
When: Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville
TV info: CBS (Verne Lundquist, Gary Danielson, Tracy Wolfson)
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Conference: ACC
Record: 9-4, 7-1
Coach: Chan Gailey (37-26, fifth season at Georgia Tech; 61-37 in eight seasons overall).
Passing leader: Reggie Ball (135-of-304, 1,820 yards, 20 TDs, 14 INTs), Taylor Bennett (16-of-29, 197 yards, two TDs, one INT).
Rushing leaders: Tashard Choice (270 carries, 1,304 yards, 10 TDs).
Receiving leaders: Calvin Johnson (67 catches, 1,016 yards, 13 TDs), James Johnson (37 catches, 540 yards, six TDs).
Defensive leaders: LB KaMichael Hall (52 solos, 29 assists, nine tackles for loss, four sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble), LB Philip Wheeler (46 solos, 33 assists, 12 tackles for loss, eight sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble), DE Adamm Oliver (36 solos, 31 assists, 11 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery), S Jamal Lewis (43 solos, 24 assists, 6 tackles for loss, three interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery), DT Joe Anoai (22 solos, 15 assists, eight tackles for loss, 4 sacks, two fumble recoveries).
West Virginia Mountaineers
Conference: Big East
Record: 10-2, 5-2
Coach: Rich Rodriguez (49-24, sixth season at West Virginia; 94-60-2 in 14 seasons overall).
Passing leader: Pat White (109-of-164, 1,524 yards, 11 TDs, seven INTs), Jarrett Brown (28-of-47, 384 yards, two TDs, one INT).
Rushing leader: Steve Slaton (245 carries, 1,733 yards, 16 TDs), Pat White (143 carries, 1,074 yards, 17 TDs).
Receiving leaders: Darius Reynaud (39 catches, 520 yards, two TDs), Brandon Myles (30 catches, 468 yards, seven TDs), Steve Slaton (25 catches, 340 yards, two TDs).
Defensive leaders: LB Kevin McLee (47 solos, 28 assists, 5 tackles for loss, three sacks, one interception), S Quinton Andrews (40 solos, 32 assists, four interceptions, one fumble recovery), S Eric Wicks (42 solos, 27 assists, 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks, three interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, seven pass breakups).
Georgia Tech running game vs. West Virginia run defense: Tashard Choice was one of the nation's most productive running backs in the second half of the season, rushing for at least 100 yards in each of his last six games. He could have a tough time reaching the century mark against a West Virginia team that ranks eighth in the nation against the run and has allowed just 2.8 yards per carry. Then again, Choice rushed for 107 yards against Miami's third-ranked run defense.
Edge: Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech passing game vs. West Virginia pass defense: Georgia Tech fans don't have Reggie Ball to kick around anymore. After struggling mightily in back-to-back losses to Georgia and Wake Forest, the senior quarterback watched his inconsistent career reach an abrupt conclusion when he was declared academically ineligible for the Gator Bowl. The Yellow Jackets instead will turn to sophomore Taylor Bennett, who will be making his second career start. Bennett's main mission is to find All-America wideout Calvin Johnson, who has failed to catch a touchdown pass in three of Georgia Tech's last four games. West Virginia is ranked 100th out of 119 Division I-A teams in pass defense. Safety Eric Wicks has three interceptions and a team-high seven sacks.
Edge: West Virginia
West Virginia running game vs. Georgia Tech run defense: Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White have given West Virginia two 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history. White expects to play against Georgia Tech despite missing the regular-season finale against Rutgers with a sprained ankle. Georgia Tech ranks 11th in the nation against the run and has allowed just 2.9 yards per carry, but West Virginia's dynamic duo could give any defensive coordinator nightmares.
Edge: West Virginia.
West Virginia passing game vs. Georgia Tech pass defense: White is known more as a runner than a passer, but the sophomore quarterback would lead the Big East and rank 11th in the nation in passing efficiency if he had enough attempts to qualify. White has completed nearly two-thirds of his passes, though he also threw two interceptions in a loss to South Florida and three in a win over East Carolina. Georgia Tech ranks ninth in the nation in pass efficiency defense, thanks in part to an aggressive scheme that features six players with at least three sacks. The Yellow Jackets could miss starting cornerback Kenny Scott, who was declared academically ineligible for this game.
Edge: Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech coaches vs. West Virginia coaches: Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey led the Yellow Jackets to a surprisingly successful year that was marred by late-season losses to Georgia and Wake Forest. West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez has risen his alma mater to such heights that he turned down an offer from Alabama. It will be interesting to see how Rodriguez known as one of the game's top offensive minds attacks Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta's blitzes.
Edge: West Virginia.
Georgia Tech will win if: The Yellow Jackets need Choice to continue his late-season surge because they must keep Slaton and White on the sideline as much as possible. And they have to continually throw to Johnson, who has been an invisible man all too often during his brilliant career.
West Virginia will win if: Slaton and White should be productive enough to give West Virginia the victory as long as the Mountaineers avoid turnovers. Johnson should get his share of catches, but the West Virginia secondary must make sure he doesn't take over the game.
Injury situation: West Virginia quarterback Pat White expects to play in the Gator Bowl after missing the Rutgers game with a sprained ankle. West Virginia tailback Steve Slaton's status is much less certain after bruising his thigh in a pre-bowl practice. West Virginia defensive tackle Craig Wilson has an ankle injury and wide receiver Rayshawn Bolden has a wrist problem that leave them questionable for the Gator Bowl.

Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball, cornerback Kenny Scott and special-teams player Xavier McGuire are academically ineligible for the Gator Bowl. Sophomore Taylor Bennett will start at quarterback and sophomore Jahi Word-Daniels will probably replace Scott.

Worth noting: Georgia Tech owns a 22-12 bowl record for a .647 winning percentage. Only Penn State (24-12-2, .647) has a higher bowl winning percentage. Georgia Tech's bowl success includes two victories over West Virginia. The Yellow Jackets defeated the Mountaineers 42-19 in the 1954 Sugar Bowl and 35-30 in the 1997 Carquest Bowl. West Virginia owns a 10-15 bowl record. Georgia Tech owns a 3-3 record in the Gator Bowl. This marks the first time West Virginia has posted consecutive 10-win seasons. The Mountaineers went 11-1 last year. Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson won the Biletnikoff Award that goes to the nation's top receiver. Georgia Tech punter Durant Brooks was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award that goes to the nation's top punter. Brooks ranks second in the nation with a net punting average of 40.1. This game features three of the nation's top 20 rushers in Slaton (3rd, 144.4 yards per game), Choice (17th, 100.3) and White (20th, 97.6).
Line: West Virginia by 11
Megargee's pick: West Virginia 27, Georgia Tech 14
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: West Virginia 34, Georgia Tech 31.
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: West Virginia 31, Georgia Tech 16.
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Georgia Tech 21, West Virginia 20
Make your picks on Rivals.com Bowl Pick 'Em.



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