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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."