Bettors Taking West Virginia Over Georgia Tech in The Gator Bowl
With their coaching future secure, the 13th-ranked Mountaineers seek to win the Gator Bowl for the first time when they take on No. 25 Georgia Tech on New Year’s Day at Jacksonville, Fla.
This is the third Gator Bowl appearance in four years and the sixth all-time for West Virginia (10-2), but the Mountaineers have lost each of their previous five times playing in the game. Those included a 30-18 loss to Florida State in 2005, and a 41-7 defeat to Maryland in the 2004 contest.
Last season, West Virginia earned a BCS berth and fared better, defeating Georgia 38-35 in the Sugar Bowl at the Georgia Dome.
After that victory, the Mountaineers entered 2006 with national title aspirations, which appeared attainable after a 7-0 start to this season and a rise to No. 3 in the BCS rankings. However, a 44-34 loss at Louisville on Nov. 2 knocked West Virginia out of national championship consideration.
A 24-19 defeat to South Florida three weeks later ended the Mountaineers’ BCS hopes.
“This football team has been through a lot this year, a little adversity,” West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. “You know we didn’t play very well at times, but nobody panicked.”
A strong effort in the Gator Bowl appears more likely with Rodriguez firmly in place. The coach, who has a 49-24 record in six seasons with the Mountaineers, turned down a reported six-year, $12 million deal from Alabama on Dec. 8 to remain at his alma mater.
“Obviously I’m very excited to stay here and I plan on being here a long time,” said Rodriguez, who grew up about 30 minutes from Morgantown. “We’ve done some pretty good things over the last five years or so. We’re not done yet. We’re going to continue to grow.”
West Virginia may have room to grow in future seasons with an offense led by two sophomores, quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton. The tandem helped the Mountaineers rank second in the nation with 302.3 rushing yards per game, and fourth in total offense, averaging 463.0 yards.
Slaton, though, is slowed by a thigh bruise and is expected to be limited – if he plays at all. His 144.4 rushing yards per game rank third in Division I-A, and his 1,733 yards on the ground have already broken the school’s single-season record, formerly held by Avon Cobourne (1,710 yards in 2002).
White gained 1,074 rushing yards – more than 300 yards more than any other Division I-A quarterback – including two games with 220 yards or more. He also completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 1,524 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
White sat out the regular-season finale, a 41-39 triple-overtime win over Rutgers on Dec. 2, with an ankle injury but is expected to play in this contest.
Slaton, who finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, and White could struggle to find running room against a Georgia Tech team giving up just 88.5 yards per game on the ground – the 11th-best ranking in the nation.
“I think even with a bruised thigh or whatever’s going on with his leg, he’s still very dangerous,” Georgia Tech defensive tackle Joe Anoai said of Slaton. “He’s got tremendous speed. Even with a small injury he can still break away.”
The Mountaineers boast the ninth-best rushing defense in Division I-A at 87.8 yards per game.
Just as they have never won the Gator Bowl, the Mountaineers have never defeated the Yellow Jackets (9-4). Georgia Tech has won the two previous meetings between the schools, both of them in bowl games – a 42-19 victory in the 1954 Sugar Bowl, and 35-30 in the 1997 Carquest Bowl.
That began the Yellow Jackets’ current streak of 10 consecutive bowl appearances. Georgia Tech is one of only six schools in the nation with a streak that long.
This is the seventh Gator Bowl appearance for the Yellow Jackets, their most in any bowl game. Georgia Tech is 3-3 all-time in the Gator, last losing 28-13 to Miami in 2000.
Like West Virginia, the Yellow Jackets contended for a BCS berth but fell short at season’s end. Georgia Tech fell 9-6 to Wake Forest in the ACC Championship game on Dec. 2, its second straight defeat following a 15-12 loss at Georgia on Nov. 25.
Despite the rough ending to the regular season, coach Chan Gailey doesn’t believe he’ll have trouble getting his team ready to play for this game.
“There’s some motivating factors,” Gailey said. “The seniors want to go out winning three out of four bowl games. There’s lots of things. When it gets down to it, it’s pride. You want to finish strong. Everyone does.”
But two of Gailey’s most important seniors will not take the field. Quarterback Reggie Ball, a four-year starter who threw for 1,820 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, has been ruled academically ineligible for this game.
Ball’s backup, sophomore Taylor Bennett, completed 6 of 12 passes for 126 yards, two TDs and one interception in the latter stages of a 49-21 blowout of Duke on Nov. 18. Bennett has attempted just 66 passes in his collegiate career.
Cornerback Kenny Scott, who had 50 tackles and two interceptions in his senior season, has also been ruled ineligible for the Gator Bowl.
“You’re disappointed for the young men and you’re disappointed for the team,” Gailey said. “Although this is a very, very bad ending to the careers of these two young men, we can’t forget the contributions they have made to the Georgia Tech program the last four years.”
Without Ball, the Yellow Jackets will need to find ways to utilize wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
The junior has 67 receptions for 1,016 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, earning him first-team All-America honors for the second straight year and the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver.
Johnson caught eight passes for 117 yards against Wake Forest, accounting for all but one completion that Ball threw in the game.
by: Anthony White – theSpread.com – Email Us
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