Bill Hass on the ACC: Crossing the Border Pays Off in a Big Way #accfcg
Dec. 2, 2009
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Michael Palmer grew up a big fan of Georgia Tech football, and Sedric Griffin felt much the same way about Clemson.
Each will be living his dream when those teams meet in the Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship Game Saturday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa – except they will be playing in different uniforms than they once imagined.
After neither was offered a scholarship by their preferred school, they crossed the Georgia-South Carolina border in opposite directions to pursue their college careers.
Palmer, from Stone Mountain, Ga., will be playing tight end for Clemson. Griffin, from Blair, S.C., will be the strong side linebacker for Georgia Tech. Both are seniors, and this will be the fifth time they’ve faced their once-favorite school. Even so, the game retains a certain flavor.
“This (Georgia Tech) is the team I grew up idolizing and watching all their games and going to their games (with my father and brother),” Palmer said. “It makes it more fun. It’s kind of just another opponent now, but it definitely still has some special meaning to it.”
Griffin never tires of any game against Clemson.
“It’s always motivation for me,” he said. “I felt Clemson would be a good place for me but things didn’t work out. I was a big (South Carolina) Gamecock fan but during the recruiting process I converted to a Clemson fan. Now I’m the biggest Georgia Tech fan ever.”
Each player has been hearing plenty from old friends this week. A couple of Palmer’s high school basketball teammates are big Tech fans.
“They were at the game in Atlanta (won by the Jackets 30-27) and I talked to them after game,” he recalled. “I told them that we’ll see them again, and here we are. I’m starting to get text messages from those guys talking about how we’re going to lose and all that stuff.”
Griffin has held the upper hand over old friends because Georgia Tech has won three of the four meetings with Clemson since he’s been here.
“The majority of my high school attends Clemson,” he said, “so when we play them I get tons of Facebook messages and they harass me on my phone, telling me how they’re going to beat us and stuff. So I hear it from my classmates. I’d like to have the last laugh one more time.”
Both have long since settled in at their respective schools. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Palmer had a breakout season this year, earning first-team All-ACC honors with 38 catches for 439 yards and four touchdowns. His combined totals for his first three seasons were 30 catches, 318 yards and four TDs.
“He has just really developed into an outstanding player,” said coach Dabo Swinney. “He is great at catching the football, but is just good at everything. I think he can go play in the NFL.”
Griffin is a two-year starter who makes up for his 5-11, 225-pound stature with extremely hard hitting. In 2008 he had 53 tackles, including eight tackles for loss and three sacks. This year he leads the Yellow Jackets with 40 solo tackles and is third in total tackles with 70.
Each player is trying to help his team do something it hasn’t accomplished in a long time. Georgia Tech won the Coastal Division in 2006 but lost in the title game to Wake Forest. The Jackets haven’t been to the Orange Bowl since the 1967 game.
“I was part of the 2006 team that played in the championship,” Griffin said. “It was a tough loss and I’m blessed to get a second chance and I want to capitalize on it. It’s been (more than) 40 years since Georgia Tech has been to a BCS Bowl and I really want to be part of that.”
Clemson hasn’t won an ACC title since 1991 and has not been to the Orange Bowl since the 1981 season when it won the national championship with a victory over Nebraska. This year’s seniors have been thinking about this opportunity for some time.
“Since summer workouts we started talking about leaving our legacy and bringing an ACC championship back to Clemson,” Palmer said. “We felt that was something we could hang our hat on; it would be the first Clemson team in 18 years to win an ACC championship. Now it’s within our grasp and it’s something we’ve been working for, not only this year but for the last four years.”
Both players anticipate the kind of close game recent history suggests. When they were freshmen, Clemson thumped Tech 31-7. Georgia Tech has won the last three by 10, 4 and 3 points.
When they met in early September, Tech bolted to a 24-0 halftime lead but Clemson roared back to take a 27-24 lead before the Jackets pulled it out late. The Tigers’ comeback, Palmer said, helped them realize the explosiveness of their offense.
Both players should be plenty busy and might even cross paths a few times. As Clemson’s second-leading receiver, Palmer will likely be a frequent target of quarterback Kyle Parker. That is, when Palmer isn’t blocking Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan, the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“He’s got a high motor and plays really hard and is really athletic,” Palmer said. “He’s a complete defensive end. He really is as good as advertised; he deserves every accolade that he’s been given.
“It’s going to be a battle and he’s going to win some. If he wins one time, you’ve got to forget about it and you’ve got to be ready to battle the next time. Someone as good as that, you can’t get down when they beat you one time. You’ve got to shake it off and get ready to go again.”
Griffin will look to stop the run and also drop into pass coverage, defending everyone from Palmer to speedster Jacoby Ford.
“I’ll pretty much be strong on the run,” Griffin said, “and they have some pretty good tight ends I’ll be covering. I’ll also be in pass coverage to try and slow down Jacoby a little bit. If he gets a full head of steam it will be a long day, but I plan on getting my hands on him and slowing him down some.”
Another player who figures prominently is Clemson’s C.J. Spiller, the ACC Offensive and Overall Player of the Year. He’s a threat running, receiving and returning kickoffs and punts.
“C.J. Spiller is one great athlete,” Griffin said. “He can do it all. We’re not just trying to stop him in the running game, we’re trying to stop him in special teams, also. So he’s probably priority number one.”
Palmer said each time Spiller touches the ball he’s a threat to score a touchdown.
“He makes me look good a lot and it makes my job a lot easier having someone like that,” Palmer said. “You just have to give him a small little crease and stay in front of your defender and he’ll do the rest. He’s one heck of a player and a guy I’ll never forget, that’s for sure.”
The teams are coming off disappointing losses to non-conference rivals, Georgia Tech to Georgia and Clemson to South Carolina. Both players said those losses are of no consequence for this game.
“We turned the ball over, we didn’t play good in the offensive line, we didn’t play good in the skill positions, we just didn’t play good offense,” Palmer said. “Hopefully this is going to refocus us. I don’t think we lost any confidence; we just have to come out and play a whole lot better than we did last Saturday.”
Griffin said the Jackets spent only a little time reflecting on their defeat.
“The after-effects have already been shaken off,” he said. “It was a tough loss and we mourned that night and were back at it the next day. You can’t dwell on it, so we have our minds focused on Clemson and we’re ready to get a championship ring.”
Keys for each team winning?
Palmer: “We can’t turn the ball over and secondly we’ve got to play Clemson football, the same way we played when we won six straight. I think we’ve just got to take care of the things that we can control and be accountable to each other, especially on offense. Be smart and play with poise.”
Griffin: “Our No. 1 priority is ‘stop the run’; if we can stop the run we’re going to win the game. It’s the biggest one of all and I’m ready for it.”
No matter the outcome, there will be no grudges and no regrets.
“I’ve had a great time here at Clemson and the way it all worked out is extra special,” said Palmer, the Georgian who turned to a school in South Carolina.
And Griffin, the South Carolina native who crossed over into Georgia?
“I couldn’t be anywhere better.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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