Facts and Factors:
Utah (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) will play Georgia Tech (8-4, 5-3 ACC) in the Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, on New Years Eve. Kickoff is set for noon Mountain Standard Time.
The Utes are making their second Sun Bowl appearance and their first since they beat New Mexico 26-0 on Jan. 2, 1939.
It will be the 10th bowl game in 11 years for the Utes, including all seven years under head coach Kyle Whittingham. Utah's Head Coach is assured of his seventh winning season, despite the outcome of the Sun Bowl.
Utah and Whittingham are 1-0 against Georgia Tech. In Whittingham's first season as head coach, the Utes upset 24th-ranked Georgia Tech 38-10 in the 2005 Emerald Bowl.
Utah finished the regular season in a tie for third place in the Pac-12 South division. Utah has won four of its last five games, and was in contention for the Pac-12 South division title until the final game of the regular season (a 17-14 loss to Colorado).
Utah's 12-4 all-time bowl record includes nine-straight wins from 1999-2009 before last year's loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Utah's nine-game win streak is tied for the second-longest of all time with USC (1923-45). The record is 11 straight by Florida State (1985-96).
Georgia Tech finished the season tied for second in the ACC's Coastal Division, and will play in a bowl game for the 15th consecutive season (40th overall).
The Sun Bowl puts the nation's third-ranked rushing offense in Georgia Tech (316.8 ypg) against Utah's seventh-ranked rush defense (97.0 ypg).
When Utah has the ball:
The Utah offense spent most of the season searching for an identity under a new Offensive Coordinator in Norm Chow. Despite multiple injuries, and constant turnover, Utah's offense started to find a rhythm midway through the year. With a more friendly schedule, the Utes ran the ball over 59% of offensive plays from scrimmage. Utah's passing game was among the worst in America, finishing 99th in FBS in passing yards per game. Perhaps the biggest question mark about Utah's offense, is what they will look like moving forward. Norm Chow will call the plays on Saturday, then depart for his well-deserved venture as new head coach of the University of Hawaii.
Georgia Tech's defense enters the Sun Bowl with a statistically mediocre defense. The Yellow Jackets are better against the pass (rank 45th nationally) than they are against the run (T-70th nationally). Georgia Tech one player represented on the postseason All-ACC teams (Julian Burnett on the 2nd team).
At quarterback for the Utes, Jon Hays has a 5-3 record as a starter. As a player known for his toughness and grit, Hays won't exactly strike fear into the hearts of the opponents. Hays completed 57% of his passes on the season, for 1266 yards with 9 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. The key for Hays is ball control, and the gritty junior seemingly learned a lot about ball control as the season progressed. Hays has been sacked 26 times this season, often holding onto the ball too long while trying to make a play. With a monster bowl game, it's possible Hays could end the season with more passing yards than John White has rushing yards (1404 yards), though that seems unlikely.
Speaking of White, there might not have been a more valuable performer for the Utes this season. John White rushed the ball on average 24 times a game for a 117 yard/game average. White averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and reached the endzone 16 times on the season (14 rushing, 2 receiving). All this while opponents stacked the box, and keyed on White. Utah will need a big performance from White if they want to move the ball consistently up the field. White was voted 2nd team all PAC-12.
At Wide Receiver, Utah is much more formidable with junior WR DeVonte Christopher in the lineup. Christopher is a big play threat who has become a very reliable possession receiver on 3rd downs. Christopher finished the season with an average of 58.9 yards per game, with 4 touchdowns. Opposite of Christopher, Utah will stretch the field vertically with speedsters Reggie Dunn, Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott. Luke Matthews may also hear his name called a few times during the game. Look for a simple array of routes from Utah's receivers, utilizing short passes and the occasional deep chance.
The Utes Offensive Line has benefitted more than anybody for the increased emphasis on a running game. Senior tackles Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen received praise from opponents for their punishing play during PAC-12 conference play. Bergstrom was voted first team all PAC-12, while Cullen was voted second team all PAC-12. At guard, Junior Sam Brenner has been a consistent, high-level performer for the Utes. Brenner has only allowed 1 sack on the season, and has played the most snaps of any lineman. Brenner suffered an apparent injury against Colorado and was carted off the field during the final game of the season. Opposite of Brenner, Jeremiah Tofaeono is likely to get the start in place of the injured Miles Mason. While it's possible Mason could play, JT is likely to get the nod. At Center, Tavita Stevens has had an up-and-down season, but has the potential to be a high-level performer for the Utes.
On the defensive line, Georgia Tech is slightly undersized for their scheme. The Yellow Jacket defenders do an admirable job of eating up blocks, but rarely are a cause for concern for opponents. DT Logan Walls is a solid player at his position, while Defensive Ends Izaan Cross and Jason Peters understand their roles and play to them well. The Yellow Jackets allowed 163 yards per game, despite low snap totals (their offensive philosophy generally runs the clock down and generates fewer offensive possessions in a game).
At linebacker, Georgia Tech has a capable group of players. Julian Burnett leads the team in total tackles with 113, and earned 2nd team all conference honors. Jeremiah Attaochu is an explosive player who missed some time this season due to injury. As you'd expect from a 3-4 defense, this group of LBs flies around and makes a lot of plays for this defense.
The Yellow Jacket secondary will be without the assistance of starter Louis Young who is suspended for the bowl game. Rod Sweeting will be the lead man for the GT secondary, and will likely draw the assignment of DeVonte Christopher. Opposite of Sweeting will be the young Michael Peterson. Peterson saw limited action this season and may be a liability…though whether Utah has the capability to exploit Peterson is the big question. At safety, the Yellow Jackets pair a savvy senior in Isaiah Johnson with an up and coming sophomore stud in Rashaad Reid. Expect Reid to spend a lot of time near the line of scrimmage, daring the Utes to test the Yellow Jackets deep.
When Georgia Tech has the ball:
Offensively, Georgia Tech will feature an option attack much like what Utah saw from Air Force during their many years as conference foes. The Yellow Jackets rush the ball 81% of the time, and feature one of the top rushing attacks in the nation. When GaTech does pass the ball, it's usually affective and down the field. Georgia Tech is averaging 11.3 yards per pass attempt, and 24.1 yards per reception.
Defensively, Utah is an extremely stout and physical unit. Utah features one of the nation's top rush defenses, ranking 7th in FBS. The Utes also rank 23rd in passing efficiency defense. One of Utah's greatest attributes this season has been their ability prevent big plays. Utah's defense also has forced turnovers in bunches.
Tevin Washington will be a key player for the Georgia Tech offense. At quarterback in an option system, Washington's decision will dictate how the offense goes. As a runner, Washington came up just shy of 900 yards on the season, with 4 touchdowns.
Running Back is a very important position in any offense, but in an option attack, the quarterback gets most of the visibility. Despite the lack of attention, the Running Backs and Fullbacks will play a critical role. Georgia Tech will run three backs at the Utes, using David Sims, Orwin Smith, and Roddy Jones. The trio play exceptionally well together, and can pound the ball inside, or use misdirection and speed to beat a defense. More than any other game this season, the battle of third downs will be critically important to the outcome of this game. If Utah can force Georgia Tech into 3rd and long, their chances improve drastically.
Georgia Tech won't throw the ball much on offense, but when they do, they aim for big plays. Stephen Hill is a big play machine, averaging a shocking 30.2 yards per reception. Tyler Melton is also a big play threat. Ute defenders need to be careful not to get lulled to sleep by the Georgia Tech option attack.
On the offensive line, Georgia Tech has a very young group. No seniors will start in the bowl game. Unlike most offensive schemes, bulk and size aren't as important as other systems. Offensive linemen will need to be quick and agile. It is very common for option schemes to leave key "reads" on the defensive line unblocked. OG Omoregie Uzzi is a very good lineman in this scheme, and will play a key role on Saturday. Uzzi earned first-team all ACC honors this season.
The Utah defensive line has been sensational, led by the play of DT Star Lotulelei. PAC-12 coaches have called Star Lotulelei a "game wrecker". Lotulelei earned first-team all PAC-12 honors on defense, and was voted the conference's best defensive lineman. Star graded out as a first-round NFL prospect this season by NFL scouts, yet has opted to return for his senior season next year. DT Dave Kruger will miss the bowl game due to an infection in his leg, his discipline and toughness might be missed against the explosive GaTech option. At DE, Derrick Shelby had a breakout season for the Utes, also earning all conference honors. DE Joe Kruger never developed into the pass rush specialist Utah had hoped he would become, but should do well in an assignment based defensive scheme designed to stop the option.
At linebacker, Utah was once very deep, but now are quite thin. Chaz Walker leads Utah in tackles going away, and is great in pursuit of the ball. Trevor Reilly has been a big play threat for the Utes, but has been quiet the last couple of weeks. Matt Martinez is a tackling machine, but like Walker, hasn't been great in pass coverage. Fortunately for the Utes, they probably won't see much passing this week.
In the secondary, Utah has seen some of the nation's best WRs inside PAC-12 play this season, and held up reasonably well. Conroy Black has had a terrific senior season, while Ryan Lacy and Mo Lee have had up and down seasons. Free Safety Eric Rowe has improved every week, and is on his way to becoming one of the best safeties in the history of Utah football. Strong Safety Brian Blechen will be a valuable asset this week with his linebacker experience. Expect Blechen to spend a lot of time in the Georgia Tech backfield as an extra tackler against the option.
Utah kicker Coleman Peterson had been a welcomed surprise for the Utes this season, and then he laid an epic egg in Utah's final game against Colorado. Peterson converted 17 of 24 field goals on the season, but missed all 3 attempts in his last outing. Peterson has been perfect from a range of 30-39 yards, making 10 FGs in 10 attempts. From all other distances, Peterson is just 50%, without an attempt over 50 yards. At punter, Sean Sellwood has broken out of an early slump, and now has an average of 44.2 yards per punt.
In the return game, Reggie Dunn has averaged about 24 yards per return, but has yet to break one for a touchdown. Dunn's long is 45. Griff McNabb is a sure handed punt returner, but isn't much of a threat to go the distance.
For Georgia Tech, Justin Moore has made 9 of his 13 field goal attempts this season. At punter, Sean Poole has been downright awful for the Yellow Jackets, averaging just 38.7 yards per punt.
Orwin Smith has gotten the bulk of return attempts for Georgia Tech this season, while Tony Zenon has shown the big play ability to be a threat to be taken serious.
The injuries are extensive for the Utes. Starters Jordan Wynn (QB), Dallin Rogers (TE) and reserves Charles Henderson (WR/PR), Boo Anderson (LB) and Keith McGill (S) are out. Miles Mason (OG) and Dave Kruger (DT) are doubtful, while Joe Kruger (DE), John White (RB), and Sam Brenner (OG) all should play.
Weather forecasts for Saturday are excellent. Highs should be around 63 degrees for the day with clear skies.
Utah 14, Georgia Tech 17
Expect a defensive battle on Saturday, with fewer possessions than most games. Sustained drives might be hard to come by, with two offenses, each being quite one-dimensional. Ultimately, Utah's offense lays an egg, while Georgia Tech comes up with enough big plays to win the game.
Game Preview- Utah vs Georgia Tech
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