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Tech quarterback Taylor Bennett gets second-career start
Georgia Tech Choice4 col bw
Georgia Tech's Tashard Choice (22) and his teammates hope to rally around sophomore quarterback Taylor Bennett, who’s making just his second career start on a big stage today.
    Taylor Bennett threw a 42-yard touchdown pass on the first down of his first start for Georgia Tech. That was last season, and he has barely played since.
    The sophomore will get his second start on a bigger stage when the Yellow Jackets play No. 13 West Virginia in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., today.
    He’s replacing four-year starter Reggie Ball, who was ruled academically ineligible. The bowl would’ve been the senior’s 50th start, tying a school record.
    ‘‘I’m just taking this like another game, where you prepare like I did during the season,’’ Bennett said. ‘‘You’ve always got to be ready.’’
    Bennett is 16 of 29 relieving Ball this season, with two TDs and one interception.
    ‘‘You can see his arm strength, that’s easy to see when you walk out on the practice field. You can see his understanding of the game, the way he handles himself,’’ coach Chan Gailey said of Bennett. ‘‘But the intangibles, the way he studies the game, the way he handles himself with the team, with the offense. Those are things we know about, but we don’t know about. That’s going to be interesting to see.’’
    Bennett’s greatest asset is his primary receiver.
    All-American Calvin Johnson won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver after catching 67 passes for 1,016 yards and 13 touchdowns. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Johnson towers over most defensive backs. And with a 40-inch vertical leap, he can jump over the rest.
    ‘‘He’s so tall. He’s so physical. And he has that speed, too, to go with it,’’ said Mountaineers cornerback Vaughn Rivers, who is the shortest member of the secondary at 5-9. ‘‘Calvin Johnson is a different receiver. He’s going to present his own problems.
    ‘‘He has the potential to get a 100-yard game against anybody he plays at this level. He’s going to be our biggest matchup so far this season.’’
    Pass defense has been the Mountaineers (10-2) biggest problem, allowing 236 passing yards per game to rank 100th in Division I-A.
    Tashard Choice, the ACC’s leading rusher, provides an option on the ground for the Yellow Jackets (9-4), who lost to rival Georgia and to Wake Forest in the ACC title game to end the regular season.
    West Virginia’s spread-option offense will be tough to keep up with.
    Steve Slaton has rushed for 1,733 yards and 16 touchdowns, and quarterback Patrick White has run for 1,074 yards and 17 TDs. The two sophomores were just the third pair of teammates in NCAA history to rush for 200 yards in a single game (against Pitt), and the Mountaineers are third in the nation at 302 yards rushing per game.
    Slaton has been nursing what West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez called a ‘‘freak injury’’ to his thigh, but it shouldn’t keep him out of the Gator Bowl.
    Gailey said he considered using Bennett in relief of Ball in the Gator Bowl even before the senior was ruled ineligible. Ball had thrown 14 interceptions and 20 touchdown passes this season.
    West Virginia linebacker Jay Henry said Ball’s absence made Tech less predictable.
    ‘‘We don’t have as much film on him to know and see what he can do,’’ Henry said. ‘‘We saw tape on him in the Duke game and a couple others, not a lot of tape. He’s a big kid who throws the ball real well.’’
    West Virginia is making its fifth straight bowl appearance, a school record. But the Mountaineers are 3-5 in New Year’s bowls, and lost in their two previous Gator Bowl appearances (2004 and 2005).
    The Gator Bowl will be West Virginia’s first game since Rodriguez turned down Alabama’s head coaching job and agreed to a contract extension through 2014. He has helped establish the Mountaineers as a Top 25 mainstay, but would like them to show up better in bowls.
    ‘‘Sure, you want your players to enjoy the game and the atmosphere of a bowl game, but I think our guys are mature enough to understand that there is a lot of work involved too, and that the most important thing down here is to win the game,’’ Rodriguez said. ‘‘The fun that they have and the experiences that they’ll have, I think they’ll remember that, but they won’t remember that as well as the game.’’
    Georgia Tech is playing in its 10th straight bowl, one of only six teams in the country with that streak. It’s the Yellow Jackets’ seventh Gator Bowl, and they are 3-3.