The 2000 Gator Bowl: Ronyell Whitaker
by Art Stevens
TSL Extra, Issue #14

Virginia Techís Hokies hadnít been in Jacksonville, Fla., too long. Theyíd arrived just that afternoon in fact, six days away from their meeting with Clemson in the 2001 Gator Bowl.

Already, a function beckoned.

On arrival night, participating teams are taken to Dave and Busterís. Thatís an eatery with a huge game room attached. Players could grab some grub and play some video games. Media was invited to attend, so interviews were mixed in with the fun.

It was at this event that Virginia Techís Ronyell Whitaker got his first live look at Clemsonís Rod Gardner.

Whitaker already knew plenty about Gardner. A cornerback, Whitaker makes it a point to learn everything he can about his "man" for the week. Gardner was a wide receiver who would end up as Clemsonís all-time leader in receptions. He was big at 6-4, 230 pounds. He was being projected as a first-round draft pick (and thatís exactly where he ended up, going to the Washington Redskins with the 15th overall selection).

He was playing in his hometown and was excited about that. Like Whitaker, Gardner is a guy who loves to talk. It promised to be quite a matchup.

"That was the first time Iíd seen him and I was like, ĎGosh, he is a first-round draft pick.í I saw how big he was," the 5-9 Whitaker recalled. "Iíd been watching him on film a lot, wondering is he that good?

"Well, he is that good. Heís a great receiver. He has the size, the speed, heís physical, heís strong. I knew it wasnít going to be any cakewalk checking him."

Whitaker had one advantage. Going against a top-flight receiver was nothing new. During the 2000 season, he earned second-team All-Big East Conference honors. Thatís a league well-stocked with receivers. Miami had two who went in the first round in Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne. Pittsburgh had Antonio Bryant and Latef Grim. Whitaker had seen big-time up close.

He saw the assignment of covering Gardner as an honor and a challenge.

"The package Coach (Bud) Foster had in for that game was brilliant and Iím glad they gave me the opportunity, that they believed in me and felt I could cover him one on one," Whitaker said.

Tech beat Clemson in convincing fashion, 41-20, for the final victory in its second consecutive 11-1 season.

Stars were everywhere. Quarterback Michael Vick, playing what turned out to be his final game in a Hokies uniform, was voted Most Valuable Player. He threw for 205 yards and a touchdown. He ran for another score.

Lee Suggs, the man with 28 regular-season touchdowns, added three more (though they donít count on his Tech record because the school doesnít count bowl-game stats).

Andre Davis didnít have a huge day at wide receiver, with only two catches for 70 yards. But one of the receptions was a 55-yarder, a sign that Davis was feeling much better after the various leg injuries that bothered him late in the season (he had surgery the week after the Gator Bowl).

On defense, there was a school of thought that tackle David Pugh should have been the gameís MVP. He led a vicious pass rush that kept Clemson quarterbacks Woodrow Dantzler and Willie Simmons scrambling for their safety. The two were sacked six times. Jim Davis, only a freshman, had sacks of Simmons on successive plays.

"That was probably the best pressure we were able to get on a quarterback just with our front four," Foster, the defensive coordinator, said. "We didnít blitz as much as we have in other games, especially early. Our front four controlled the line of scrimmage. We just played fast. Pugh was outstanding, I thought a key force that day."

Whitaker?

Well, statistically it appears Gardner had a decent game. He finished with seven catches for 94 yards, not a bad outing. He caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Simmons. Clemson does count bowl stats in its records and Gardner became No. 1 with his Gator Bowl showing.

That said, Whitaker had one of the better games of his career. Clemson tried to find Gardner deep early and couldnít get a completion. Much of his success came after the Hokies had assumed control.

Whitaker had one of Techís two interceptions. He returned it 27 yards to tie a school record for the longest interception return in a bowl game.

"Ronyell played a great game," Foster said. "He was in the guyís face all day. He was very, very solid. I think just taking (Gardner) out of the offense was as big a contribution as we could get. They tried to take some deep shots at him early that were incomplete, that Ronyell contested, knocked away. He had some little quick gains, stop routes, that type of thing.

"Basically it just took a big part of their offense, a big weapon, right out of the game."

Gardner, like Whitaker, is all-world when it comes to talking. He wasnít shy in Jacksonville.

"At the beginning of the game, he had a lot to say," Whitaker recalled. "He was saying things like I wasnít on his level, what made me think I could check him, things like that."

Whitaker didnít respond with silence. He talked, too.

"Of course," he said with a laugh. "I was just telling him we were about to see right now, about to prove in front of the whole world right now. Letís do it.

"And a few other things."

He even got into the act with Clemson coach Tommy Bowden. At one point, Whitaker and Foster said, Bowden implored Gardner by yelling, "Rod, baby, Rod, baby, the guy is only 5-9. Work your magic."

Whitakerís response? "I told him he would have been better off bringing Tulane (Bowdenís former team)," Whitaker said.

All in fun, he hastened to add. He respects the Bowden family, he said, and is looking forward to going against Tommyís father Bobby and Florida State in the upcoming Gator Bowl. He also respects Gardner, who Whitaker said stayed pretty quiet as the game progressed.

The two didnít get a chance to speak after the game.

"It was hard checking him," Whitaker said. "He is good."

Whitaker heaped praise on the Hokiesí pass rush that day, pointing out that it made it much easier to cover.

"They were stellar, the way they played that game was unreal," Whitaker said. "They bottled (Dantzler) up, he couldnít get going. That set the stage for the secondary. We really didnít have to heat him up a whole lot because those guys were playing so well."

Heíll take the same mindset into this yearís bowl as he did last year. "You want to go out and provide as much energy, as big a spark as possible," Whitaker said. "That not only helps me, it helps the younger guys on the team see how to step up in games like this."

Itís been said by many that a bowl game is as much the first game of the following season as it is the final game of the previous season. Many college football fans make it a point to catch as many bowls as they can on television, often the only time theyíll see a particular team. Reputations are made that carry over to the next year.

Whitaker is a believer in that theory. In 2001, he earned first team All-Big East honors and third-team All-America honors. Oh, he earned them with his play in 2001. If heíd stunk, his performance against Gardner wouldnít have meant a thing. But it was his performance against Gardner that helped label Whitaker as one to watch and watchers Ė the voters for the various honors teams Ė obviously liked what they saw.

"That game gave me a confidence boost," said Whitaker, who already had plenty of that. "It built my confidence to a whole Ďnother level. After that, I thought I could guard anybody."

 

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