ATLANTA - After a summer of reading and hearing about how bad its season would be, Georgia Tech shocked its critics and stunned the football world with a victory against Auburn and a near-win at Florida State.
That strong play earned the Yellow Jackets praise far and wide for their battle against the odds. Obviously, it went to their heads.
Clemson drilled the favored Yellow Jackets 39-3 at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday night, reminding the home team of the perils of believing what you read.
"No disrespect, but I think they were living off of that (Florida State) game," Clemson defensive end J.J. Howard said.
In a series that has seen its past seven games decided by five points or less, Clemson dominated Georgia Tech en route to its most lopsided victory in the series since John Heisman coached the Tigers to a 73-0 victory in 1903. The next season, the legendary coach was patrolling the Yellow Jackets' sidelines.
In the process, the Tigers (3-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) burst the bubble of optimism surrounding the Yellow Jackets early play.
"We played better when we read that stuff about how bad we were going to be than we did when people were writing about us doing good things," Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey said.
The Yellow Jackets (1-3, 0-2) did few things well Saturday. The defense - dominant against Auburn and good against Florida State for more than three quarters - was picked apart by sophomore quarterback Charlie Whitehurst and a quartet of talented wide receivers.
The Tigers scrapped their off-season nonsense about the I-formation and toughness, opting instead for a no-huddle, air-it-out approach. Whitehurst made it work in the first half when Clemson built a 23-3 halftime lead behind three passing touchdowns.
Whitehurst completed 23 of 38 passes for 298 yards, taking advantage of a Georgia Tech defense designed to stop the run. Georgia Tech generated little pressure on Whitehurst with its front four, which forced the Yellow Jackets to blitz and leave the secondary in single coverage against the Tigers' receivers.
Clemson's Kevin Youngblood (five catches, 101 yards, touchdown), Derrick Hamilton (five catches, 79 yards), Airese Currie (six catches, 78 yards, touchdown) and Tony Elliot (five catches, 31 yards, touchdown) exploited Georgia Tech's cornerbacks and safeties all night.
"We came into the season with the goal of being the best secondary in the ACC, so I think we expect a lot from each other," said Georgia Tech cornerback Reuben Houston, who was beaten by Elliot for Clemson's first touchdown. "We know what to do, and we just have to do it."
In the second half - with the lead growing - Clemson turned to the ground, rushing for 104 of their 138 yards after halftime. Georgia Tech, the top rushing defense in the ACC entering the game, had not allowed more than 91 yards on the ground this season. The Tigers rolled up 436 total yards of offense.
"I did not get them ready to play this week. It would be easy to point a lot of fingers, but just point them right here at me," Gailey said. "It's my responsibility to get them ready to play."
While the Clemson offense provided a blueprint for attacking the Yellow Jackets' defense - with the vertical passing game - the Tigers' defense gave opponents a glimpse of what to do against true freshman quarterback Reggie Ball, who suffered through the worst game of his young career.
He completed 19 of 42 passes for 248 yards - all career highs - but many of his throws were off-target. He misfired high and low, and even when he completed passes, his receiver often had to go to the ground to catch them, negating any opportunity for yards after the catch.
Clemson blitzed Ball extensively from the perimeter, eliminating the bootlegs and rollouts that Georgia Tech has used effectively for the 5-foot-11 Ball, who was sacked five times, including once for a safety.
Ball, buoyed by the Yellow Jackets' strong early play, boasted after Georgia Tech 's 14-13 loss to Florida State that his team would not lose another game this season.
"I said it, and now I've got to eat it," Ball said after the game. "We got outplayed. When I said that statement, I didn't think we were going to play like this."
Georgia Tech converted four of 17 third-down opportunities. The rushing attack, which has been nearly nonexistent in the early season, had another off night. P.J. Daniels led the Yellow Jackets with 34 yards rushing.
The performance puts a damper on Georgia Tech's past two efforts. Entering the season, the first four games were looked on as a proving ground for the Yellow Jackets' chances. An 0-4 start was not considered out of the question, but Georgia Tech's effort against Auburn gave the Yellow Jackets hope of a surprising year.
Maybe too much hope.
"I don't know if we got the big head because we beat Auburn and almost beat Florida State or what, but we seemed focus. But I guess we all got confidence and it might have made us not prepare the way we should have," senior cornerback Jonathan Cox said.
"A loss like this does it for you."
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