-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Utah Utes (7-5, 4-5) vs. Georgia Tech (8-4, 5-3)
Date: Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas
The more things change the more they stay the same for Utah fans. In year one of Pac-12 play, Kyle Whittingham was able to extend his consecutive bowl streak to nine seasons — including two BCS bowl wins. The Utes have gone 7-1 over that span, but lost its last postseason game to Boise State 26-3 in the Las Vegas Bowl last season.
The Yellow Jackets are making their even more impressive 15th straight bowl appearance. Unfortunately, however, Georgia Tech has not capped a season with a bowl win in seven tries. Their last postseason win was 51-14 Champs Sports Bowl win over Syracuse in 2004. Tech lost to Air Force 14-7 last winter in the Independence Bowl.
Despite choking against Colorado in the season finale, the Utes won four of the last five to earn itself a trip to El Paso. The Jackets, on the other hand, started hot at 6-0 before struggling to a 2-4 second half finish, including a 31-17 drubbing at the hands of rival Georgia in the season finale.
WHEN UTAH HAS THE BALL:
Tailback John White IV certainly proved he belonged in the Pac-12 in 2011. He led the league in attempts with 290 carries, finished second in the conference with 1,404 yards and his 14 touchdowns were good for third in the league. He left the Colorado game in the third quarter with a sprained left ankle. He appears to be healthy for the bowl game and will undoubtedly be the focal point of the Utes offensive attack.
It is a good thing Utah can run the ball with White, because Jordan Wynn’s replacement has struggled to complete passes. Junior college transfer Jon Hays finished 12th in Pac-12 in passer efficiency, throwing only nine touchdowns and 140.7 yards per game since taking over for Wynn. This team finished last in the league in total offense (308.7 ypg) and passing offense (171.6 ypg).
The good news is this is one of Paul Johnson’s worst defense since taking over in Atlanta. Georgia Tech finished 70th against the run (162.9 ypg) and 60th in scoring defense nationally (25.8 ppg).
WHEN GEORGIA TECH HAS THE BALL:
While Utah’s strength on offense matches-up nicely with Tech’s weakness on defense, quite the opposite will be true when the Yellow Jackets offense takes the field. The Johnson triple-option attack once again led the ACC in rushing, ranking third nationally by churning out 316.8 yards per game on the ground. Five different players topped the 400-yard mark and three went over 600. The Utes finished seventh in the nation in rushing defense (97.0 ypg), allowing the opposition to top 152 yards rushing only once (185, Washington). Georgia Tech rushed for 44 touchdowns this fall while Utah allowed a paltry six rushing scores. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
However, quarterback Tevin Washington is the fuel that makes the Tech engine purr. And he will need to be needed to complete passes to beat the stingy Ute defense. Over the first six games, he threw for 1,052 yards with ten touchdowns and only two interceptions. Tech was 6-0. Washington totaled 463 yards passing, never completed more than six passes in any game, topped the 100-yard mark once and posted a hideous 0:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Tech went 2-4. He will have to be better through the air if Tech expects to snap its bowl losing streak.
Tech kicker Justin Moore missed only four of his 66 total kicks this season (9-of-12 FG, 53-of-53 XP). Utah kicker Coleman Peterson had been equally impressive, knocking through 17 of his 21 attempts — until the final weekend of play. He went 0-for-3 in the three-point loss to Colorado and will be looking for redemption in El Paso.
This is an extremely interesting match-up of strengths and weaknesses. Both quarterbacks have struggled to move the football in the air while both teams have excelled at pounding the football down the opposition’s throat. The biggest difference will be the Ute’s ability to slow the triple-option and force Washington to beat them with his arm. Meanwhile, Tech has allowed 99 points in its last three games and won’t have enough on defense to slow White IV. Whittingham’s bunch barely outlasts Johnson’s squad in a game that should easily feature more than 100 running plays.
Utah 24, Georgia Tech 20