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December 30, 2012

Our extensive Sun Bowl preview

Game 13: 'Black Hole Sun, Won't You Come …'

The Trojans close out their disappointing 2012 season in El Paso against sub-.500 Georgia Tech.

The USC Trojans (7-5, 5-4 in the Pac-12) wrap up the 2012 campaign in the 79th Hyundai Sun Bowl against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (6-7, 5-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) at 11 a.m. (PST) on Monday, December 31 in the Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, Texas, and in front of a national CBS television audience. This is the fourth meeting between the schools (but the first since 1973), with the Trojans winning two of the previous three.

USC's 49th bowl appearance (which will be tied for third nationally after this bowl season) is its first since the 2009 Emerald Bowl, thanks to NCAA sanctions the past two seasons. The Trojans are 32-16 in bowl games - 8-7 in non-Rose Bowl appearances. USC is 0-2 in Sun Bowl appearances (losing to Michigan State in 1990, when the game was briefly known as the John Hancock Bowl, and TCU in 1998). The Trojans are 13-6 against current ACC opposition, including 2-0 in bowls - beating Duke in the 1939 Rose Bowl and Boston College in the 2009 Emerald Bowl. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is appearing in a bowl game in its 16th consecutive season. This is the Yellow Jackets' 41st bowl appearance overall (22-18), and third in the Sun Bowl (1-1, defeating Texas Tech in 1970 and losing to Utah in overtime a season ago). Georgia Tech is 6-10 vs. current Pac-12 opponents, including a 3-2 record in bowl games.

The Trojans enter the Sun Bowl losers of four of their past five games, including a Nov. 24 loss to No. 1 Notre Dame, 22-13, at the Coliseum. USC's high hopes to start 2012 have become a distant memory, as the Trojans stumbled throughout November following a season-turning loss at Arizona on Oct. 27. Georgia Tech began its season with four losses in its first six, including an embarrassing home blowout loss to Middle Tennessee State. The Jackets righted the ship, winning four of their final six regular season games to end in a three-way tie with Miami and North Carolina for the ACC Coastal Division crown, and seized the ACC Championship Game berth from those two post-season ineligible schools. Georgia Tech then received a similar waiver as UCLA in 2011 to become bowl eligible with a losing record, following its 21-15 defeat by Florida State on Dec. 1.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (32-18 career collegiate head coaching record; 25-12 at USC) is in his third season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Georgia Tech headman Paul Johnson is in his fifth year in Atlanta, but in his 16th season overall as a head coach (146-65 overall, 39-26 at Georgia Tech). His run-heavy spread option offense won two Division I-AA national championships at Georgia Southern (1999, 2000) and then revitalized a sinking Navy football program before he arrived at Georgia Tech in 2008. This season, though, has been his toughest at the helm of the Yellow Jackets.

Georgia Tech Offense
Johnson works as both the head coach and offensive coordinator and is the true mastermind behind a Georgia Tech offense that's ranked in the national top four in rushing in each of his five seasons on campus - including No. 4 in 2012 entering the Sun Bowl, with an average of 312.5 yards per game. Of course, the Jackets have also ranked in the national bottom 10 in passing in each of those seasons. Johnson is very clear that the offense is not the "triple option," but that the triple option is merely a series of plays in the scheme that Tech runs maybe 20 percent of the time. The offense, more often than not, triggers with the quarterback under center with a "B-back" lining up in the traditional fullback spot and two "A-backs" that line up as slot backs behind the offensive tackles. The offense's success is predicated on a fleet-footed QB adept at reading defensive fronts and selecting the best option among his backs and himself to carry the football. Georgia Tech throws fewer than 15 passes a game, while running the ball on more than 57 plays per outing.

Senior quarterback Tevin Washington holds a number of school and ACC rushing QB records, including his 19 rushing TDs in 2012. His 161 carries lead the Yellow Jackets, and he is the team's second leading rusher with 638 yards (a 4.0 average). As a passer, Washington has completed 56 percent of his throws for 1,173 yards, with seven TDs and four interceptions. While he's been the key cog for Tech's offense, Johnson is not afraid to pull him for ineffectiveness, and more sizeable redshirt freshman Vad Lee has appeared in 11 games at QB, carrying the ball 86 times (5.7 yards per carry, nine TDs), while throwing 51 passes (three TDs, two picks).

Senior A-back Orwin Smith is Georgia Tech's big play guy. He's averaging nine yards per carry in 2012 (9.4 yards per carry in his career), and leads the team with 673 rushing yards on just 75 carries, even though he missed two games. Smith also has 17 receptions (second on the team), with a 15.9 yards-per-catch average. At the other A-back spot, undersized junior Robert Godhigh has emerged from walk-on status to average 8.2 yards per carry on 51 totes to go along with 15 receptions (15.1 average). He's scored eight total TDs, four each rushing and receiving. Sophomores B.J. Bostic and Tony Zenon will see spot duty behind Smith and Godhigh. At B-back, junior David Sims has come on strong after overcoming an injury that kept him out of two of the first three games in 2012. In the past eight games, he leads Tech with 100 carries and 450 yards. He has four TDs. Sophomore Zack Laskey is another solid option at B-back and averages five yards per carry.

As you can imagine with this kind of offense, Georgia Tech doesn't draw a lot of interest from talented high school receivers. However, the Jackets had a solid and sizeable option in 6-foot-4 Jeff Greene, who led Tech with 18 catches in the 2013 regular season. However, Greene is no longer with the team and intends to transfer. That leaves junior Jeremy Moore (nine catches) and sophomore Darren Waller (eight grabs) as the only wideouts on the depth chart with more than one catch in 2013. The duo does average nearly 20 yards per catch.

On the offensive line, an experienced group is led by senior All-ACC right guard Omoregie Uzzi, who has appeared in 49 games at Georgia Tech, starting 37. Sophomore Morgan Bailey has displaced solid junior Will Jackson at right tackle thanks to outstanding play. Junior left tackle Ray Beno, sophomore left guard Shaquille Mason and junior center Jay Finch round out the group.

Georgia Tech Defense
The Yellow Jackets' defense underwent a big shakeup in October, when defensive coordinator Al Groh left the program following a 47-31 loss to Clemson on Oct. 6 - the third consecutive game in which Georgia Tech allowed at least 42 points (Tech has allowed at least 40 points six times this season in all). Secondary coach Charles Kelly is serving as interim defensive coordinator, while defensive line coach Andy McCollum moved to inside linebacker coach, Joe Speed moved from inside to outside linebackers and special teams coordinator Dave Walkosky added defensive line coach to his title. But, with such upheaval, surprisingly the Yellow Jackets - statistically - are not quite as bad as you'd expect. Georgia Tech ranks 54th nationally (fifth in the ACC) in total defense, allowing 387 yards per game, but only 77th nationally (ninth in the conference) in scoring defense - giving up a hair short of 30 points per game. The Jackets' numbers have been markedly improved since Groh's departure, however, especially against the rush, on third down and, recently, in the second half.

Georgia Tech's front three features a six-man rotation. The starters are junior Emmanuel Dieke at one end, with seniors T.J. Barnes at tackle and Izaan Cross at the other end. Barnes is the statistical leader with 27 tackles, including five for loss, while Dieke and Cross have combined for 43 stops and 3.5 sacks. Junior Euclid Cummings and sophomore Anthony Williams are in the mix at end, with Cummings notching 23 tackles and three sacks on the season. Sophomore Shawn Green has pitched in with 21 stops in the middle.

An effective 3-4 defense usually highlights a star outside linebacker, and Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu fits the bill. He's followed up his All-ACC 2011 performance with 68 tackles and 10 sacks, ranking third in the ACC. The junior has been hot of late, with eight of his 10 sacks coming in the season's final four games. At the other outside spot, classmate Brandon Watts also has 68 tackles, but is less of an attacker and more of a steady force. A quartet of players has handled the inside backer spots, with sophomore Quayshawn Nealy (74 tackles, two sacks, one INT) and redshirt freshman Jabari Hunt-Days (74 tackles, 4.5 for loss) starting. Behind them, junior Daniel Drummond (36 tackles) and redshirt freshman Anthony Harrell (23 stops) provide solid depth.

Georgia Tech's secondary took a big hit during Sun Bowl preparation when leading tackler and two-year starting strong safety Isaiah Johnson went down with a presumed knee injury. He had 87 tackles in 2012, with a sack and an interception and has been the Jackets' emotional leader. Look for junior Jemea Thomas, who leads the team with four picks and is second with 82 tackles, to swap from free to strong safety, allowing redshirt freshman Chris Milton, who has played the most among reserve safeties (19 tackles) to start at his natural free safety position. Motta is second on the team with 56 stops. At corner, senior Rod Sweeting has 55 tackles, including six for loss, while junior Louis Young has 28 tackles. Sophomore Jamal Golden (20 tackles, two interceptions) - who can play corner and safety - is also likely to see time against the USC passing attack.

Georgia Tech Special Teams
Georgia Tech has juggled three placekickers due to injuries in 2012, but junior David Scully is the leader when healthy, as he's expected to be on Monday. He's 37-of-39 on PATs, but just four-of-eight on field goals - though, with a 47-yarder against Florida State, he's got plenty of leg. He also handles kickoffs. Should Scully stumble, senior Chris Tanner (perfect on 15 PATs, five-of-six on FGs) is at the ready. Junior punter Sean Poole averages just more than 40 yards per boot. Defensive back Golden has been big for Tech on both punt and kick returns. He's averaging nearly 13 yards on 15 punt returns and 29 yards (including a 100-yard TD against North Carolina and a 97-yard score against BYU) on 22 kickoff returns.

USC Offensive Gameplan
What have five weeks off wrought for a USC offense that, when last seen, featured a new starting QB in redshirt freshman Max Wittek, a couple of banged up tailbacks in Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal, and a glaring propensity for committing a spate of turnovers? With Matt Barkley's USC career officially over due to a slow recovery from a shoulder injury suffered against UCLA on Nov. 17, Monday's game in El Paso should give Wittek plenty of opportunities to put himself far ahead in the battle for the 2013 starting QB position.

Kiffin did not put the shell around Wittek and his talents in the loss to Notre Dame that he did in a similar situation with Mitch Mustain in 2010. The youngster was allowed to take shots with Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, and only some befuddling decision making in the red zone by the USC offensive brain trust (well, befuddling may be a tad strong to anyone who's followed the 2012 Trojans closely) kept the Trojans from having a realistic shot to upset the Irish. Wittek's strong arm was on display, and his decisions were generally solid for a first-time starter. At the same time, McNeal and Redd were reasonably effective in spurts against ND's vaunted rushing defense. But, what happened between the 20s paled in importance to what happened when the Trojans moved into scoring position - part of that due to Notre Dame's never-say-die defensive attitude when backed up against its own goal line.

While the Yellow Jacket defense has improved in the season's second half, no one is going to confuse Georgia Tech with Notre Dame in 2012. The general consensus seems to be that USC will go after Tech's secondary - especially considering the injury to Johnson, its best defensive back. And, yes, the Yellow Jackets gave up more than 350 passing yards three times this season to attacks that didn't feature players of the caliber of Lee and Woods. Yet another concern for Tech is that, outside of Attaochu, the Yellow Jackets have struggled to get much heat on opposing quarterbacks (Georgia Tech has just 18 sacks as a team in 13 games when you take away the star linebacker). Wittek should be given every opportunity to exploit the Trojans' physical advantages in the passing game (Lee appeared to tweak a knee in practice on Saturday, but you have to expect he will play). But, don't be surprised - with Redd healthier than he's been in weeks - to see the Trojans try to thump the Jackets' defensive front. Georgia Tech's rush D has been no juggernaut, allowing more than 140 rushing yards in nine of its 13 outings.

USC Defensive Gameplan
USC's defense says goodbye to its leader, Monte Kiffin, after Monday's Sun Bowl. This fact makes a lot of the Trojan faithful very happy, as many believe the college game's reliance on spread offenses, misdirection and outright speed are things that the NFL coaching legend just doesn't quite get. USC defensive players said all the right things when the announcement that he was stepping down came, showing respect and admiration for the man. How will they perform in his swan song against Georgia Tech's flexbone - perhaps the purest version of a run-based spread offense USC's faced since the Kiffins arrived in 2010?

While Georgia Tech's 2012 offense isn't quite up to par with Johnson's best teams, its attention to detail in how it operates presents a threat to a USC defense that has been poor in space and lacked aggressiveness against similar rushing offenses. And, while the Yellow Jackets simply don't (care to) combine effective passing elements in their attack, as teams like Oregon and Arizona have done so well, it would not be a surprise to see Georgia Tech try to utilize more play action against a Trojan defense that will likely be laser focused on stopping the run.

In the end, though, playing Georgia Tech's offense is all about each of the 11 defensive players playing his role, filling his gap and aggressively finishing tackles. The Jackets rely on teams missing assignments, leaving edges uncovered and struggling to make tackles in open space. For decades, now, it seems that when the Trojans have a so-so team, they struggle immensely against option football. This USC team is plenty athletic in its front seven and has a playmaking safety in T.J. McDonald that would seem a great fit to frustrate Georgia Tech's attack. But, will they be allowed to attack and will they do it intelligently?

The Pick
Obviously, El Paso on New Year's Eve is no college football team's best idea of how to end a season. That's especially the case when a team starts the season atop the AP poll. And the disappointment of USC players has been on display in bits and pieces since it was announced that the Trojans would play in their third Sun Bowl in the school's storied 124-year football history.

But, a place like El Paso is where five-loss teams (and, apparently, seven-loss teams) usually end up. This is the bowl game the Trojans earned through their play - and, honestly, while it is a disappointment to everyone involved with USC football, it sure is a helluva lot better to have a football game to play this week than the alternative that we've experienced the past two years.

What this game comes down to is whether the Trojan players take on the attitude of the Sun Bowl as an opportunity rather than a punishment. They've certainly done the job in turning this into a true road contest, as you can't imagine a lot of the locals in El Paso in the stands on Monday will support USC after some of the "controversial" things said by a couple of USC players. Nonetheless, if the Trojans come prepared to ball in this one, they should whip Georgia Tech. Of course, that's one big "if."

USC 41, Georgia Tech 23

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 12 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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