Utes obscure but capable

GoJackets.com previews the Dec. 29 Emerald Bowl in San Francisco between Georgia Tech (7-4, 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) and Utah (6-5, 4-4 Mountain West Conference)

So, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are headed to the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco Dec. 29 to play the Utah Yoots.

What? What was the word?

What word?

The Utah what?"

What?

Did you say Yoots?

Yeah, Yoots.

What is a Yoot?

Huh? (Hurriedly checks notes). Excuse me, the Utah Utes.

Pardon the ignorance, but it's generally agreed east of the Mississippi that the Mountain West Conference consists of Air Force, Brigham Young, and that team that Florida's coach led for a couple years, whatchamacallem. Utah! That' s it.

And the Utes (6-5, 4-4 Mountain West) have lapsed back toward obscurity since Meyer and 13 starters departed at the end of 2004. But somehow, the bowl system has decided they'd make a great matchup for a 7-4 Georgia Tech team that finished 5-3 in the ACC and beat two Top 10 teams.

That's a surface comparison, of course; some prognosticators predicted the Utes would win 10 games this year. Despite all the graduations, they still feature 27 seniors, and are a bad pass and a goal-line stuff away from 8-3. Anyone who remembers Tech bowl history should be wary of a western team that's missing key starters (Fresno State, anyone?).

The game looks like an intriguing matchup, actually, pitting the nation's 12th-best defense in total yardage (Tech) vs. the 12th-best offense (Utah). When Tech has the ball, it'll be No. 81 offense against the No. 61 defense. In stats that matter, you've got the No. 43 scoring offense (Utah) vs. the No. 16 defense. And the No. 98 scoring offense vs. the No. 58 defense. You work those numbers; we majored in journalism.

Anyway, lets give a round of applause to the kids from Salt Lake City. Considering the turnout expected at SBC Park at 1:30 p.m. (Pacific) on a Thursday, they may need all the crowd noise they can get:

Where they're coming from: Coming off a 12-0 2004 and a 35-7 dismantling of Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, the Utes have to consider the Emerald Bowl a bit of a comedown. They started the season hot, opening 3-1 with wins over Arizona, Utah State and Air Force, with only a three-point loss road loss to eventual Mountain West champ TCU. But then they hit the skids, losing three straight to North Carolina (31-17), Colorado State (21-17) and at home to San Diego State (28-19). Their offense finally got cranked up with big wins over UNLV (43-32) and Wyoming (43-13) before falling short and losing its top two weapons against New Mexico, 31-27. With a winning season and bowl bid on the line, the Utes overcame the loss of starting quarterback Brian Johnson and top receiver John Madsen to beat Brigham Young in overtime, 41-34.

Utes to watch: Junior cornerback Eric Weddle (four sacks, four INTs) was named Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year. A former safety, Weddle is biggish (6-0, 200) and multitalented. He returns punts and does some pooch punting, too. Also on the All-MWC first team were linebacker Spencer Toone and DL Steve Fifita, a 6-foot, 330-pounder who moves from nose guard to tackle as needed. Fifita led the team in sacks with five. On offense, senior center Jesse Boone (6-5, 305) was first-team all-conference, as was senior kicker Dan Beardall (15 of 18, 5 of 7 outside 40 yards with a 47-yarder). Travis LaTendresse caught the touchdown in overtime that beat BYU, and led the team with nearly 75 yards per game receiving. LaTendresse lost three games to injury, then went absolutely nuts in a loss to New Mexico, hauling in nine catches for 192 yards and a TD. Quarterback Brett Ratliff, a juco transfer, has Ute fans wondering why he didn't start all year (not really; Johnson was 2nd team All-MWC). Ratliff busted up BYU for 240 yards passing, 112 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Tailback Quinton Ganther, a second-team All-MWC selection, rushed for 1,000 yards (5.5 per carry) and caught 24 passes for 296 more.

Who's hurt: Johnson (torn ACL) and Madsen (broken ankle) are out. Toone broke his hand against New Mexico, but played the next week. The rest of the chronically bad-ankled receiver corps is expected to be back at full strength, most notably Tech transfer Brian Hernandez (31 catches, 634 yards, three TDs). Tech offensive tackle Brad Honeycutt underwent season-ending knee surgery after the Georgia game. Redshirt senior Salih Besirevic, who replaced Honeycutt for the Miami and Georgia games, gets the start.

Xs and Os: Meyer may have taken his spread option offense to Florida, but it didn't leave Utah. The offense requires a mobile quarterback who can run the option and throw to multiple receivers from the shotgun. Ratliff, not known as a runner, proved adept against Brigham Young, carrying 19 times for a 5.9-yard average. The 6-4, 195-pound Ratliff threw 41 touchdown passes at Butte College in 2003-2004 as a dropback QB. He sprayed the ball erratically against BYU, completing 17 of 32 but missing badly on many. But he connected on four touchdown passes, including a 48-yarder. On defense, the Utes may try to cover Calvin Johnson one-on-one with Weddle, in order to bring more run support to stop P. J. Daniels and Reggie Ball. New defensive coordinator Gary Anderson retained their 4-3 defensive scheme, but didn't get the results of 2004. The front seven have been merely adequate, giving up 152 rushing yards per game (Tech averages 98). The defense recorded 13 interceptions and 27 sacks while giving up 25.4 points per game.

Key matchups: Chan Gailey vs. San Francisco: The Tech head coach has warned his players to stop talking down their bowl selection, and he will need to expunge any hint of an unworthy matchup from their heads as well as their mouths. Take that sense of disappointment and mix in the sudden Oz-like effect of seeing San Francisco, a world-class tourist city, for the first time. If Gailey can get his players focused on the game by kickoff, he deserves the pay hike left out of his recently negotiated contract extension. First-year Utah coach Kyle Whittingham's troops seemed thrilled just to be here, so the same doesn't apply to the Utes. Ratliff vs. Tech safety Chris Reis. Reis was one of the chief culprits in the "Utah who?" reaction to the bowl announcement, and he will need to lead by example. Stopping the option requires players individually to stick to their assignments, and Reis will need to play smart as well as aggressive, or Ratliff will burn the Jackets on pitches and waggle passes.

Notes: Utah is the "home" team and will wear red jerseys, so Tech will be in white jerseys...Tech has won three of their last four bowl games, and 22 of 33 overall for the best winning percentage among teams with at least 20 appearances. Utah has a slightly better winning percentage at 7-4... This is the first meeting between the schools. Utah has played an ACC school only twice, splitting with UNC the last two years... Hernandez, who did not play because of injury while on Tech's squad in 2002, also made stops at Arizona State and Pima Community College... Tech was +9 on turnovers for the year (seven fumbles lost and recovered, 19 interceptions against 10 given up). Utah was -1 for 2005 (14 fumbles lost and eight recovered, 13 interceptions against eight interceptions given up).


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