College Football Bowl Preview – New Year’s Eve

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Hyundai Sun Bowl

TEAMS:  Southern California (7-5. 5-4 Pac-12 Conference) vs. Georgia Tech (6-7, 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference)

TIME:  December 31st, 2:00 p.m. EST

TV:  CBS

LAS VEGAS LINES:  USC -7.5; Over/Under 63 points

At first glance at Georgia Tech’s record, you may be asking yourself how a team under .500 is eligible for post-season play.  Well, Georgia Tech had to petition the NCAA to play in a bowl game if they lost the ACC championship game to Florida State, which they did.  As a result of the NCAA accepting their petition, the Yellow Jackets remained in consideration for a bowl invite.  The Sun Bowl is happy to have head coach Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets and Georgia Tech is happy to be in El Paso.  Southern California, on the other hand, did not think El Paso was going to be their bowl destination at the outset of this year.  Many news publications forecasted the Trojans to be playing in Miami in the BCS National Title Game on January 7th.  Lots of things happened on the way to Miami, not the least of which was 5 defeats including two to long-time rivals UCLA and Notre Dame.  How the Trojans respond to playing in a bowl game that they were not happy about being in is anyone’s guess.

Sep 22, 2012; Anaheim, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans song girls cheerleaders perform during the game against the California Golden Bears at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC defeated California 27-9. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Southern California started the season in fine fashion winning their first two games over an out-matched Hawaii and Syracuse teams.  However, in their thrid game of the year, the Stanford Cardinal were able to impose their will and beat back a Trojans team that was not able to match Stanford’s physical play.  While some saw the loss to Stanford as the first sign of trouble in the land of Troy, many saw it as a blip on the radar that USC would ultimately rectify as they had remaining games against Notre Dame, Oregon, and UCLA.  And, for a period of four games, it looked as though the Stanford game was just a blip on the radar as USC won all of those games in that span.  Then came a late autumn loss at Arizona followed by a sound defeat at the hands of Oregon.  It was then that many people knew that USC was just not the team everyone thought they would be.  Over their final three games of the year, the Trojans fell apart, losing 2 of their last 3 including losses against crosstown rival UCLA and arch nemesis Notre Dame.  On top of losing 5 games in the regular season, the Trojans also lost starting quarterback and former Heisman-hopeful Matt Barkley to a shoulder injury prior to the Notre Dame game.  He also will not play in the Sun Bowl.  So, the USC hopes are once again pinned to a true freshman – Max Wittek.

While it all seems like gloom and doom for head coach Lane Kiffin and the USC Trojans, they did have good year statistically.  They ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in total offense averaging close to 452 yards per game.  The Trojans also posted the fourth best passing offense in the Pac-12 at nearly 300 yards per game, and they scored an average of 34.2 points per game good for 5th in the conference.

Defensively though, the Trojans fell woefully short of their pre-season potential.  USC finished the regular season 7th in the Pac-12 in total defense giving up an average of nearly 400 yards per game.  In addition they gave up nearly 25 points per game.  For a team looking to win a national title, the defense should be yielding no more than 10-15 points per game.  To compare, Notre Dame and Alabama are allowing 10.3 and 10.7 points per game respectively.

Georgia Tech was another team that had high expectations heading into the year.  Some publications had Georgia Tech challenging Virginia Tech for the ACC’s Coastal Division title.  The Yellow Jackets started the season porly though losing four of their first six games.  The low point had to be a 21-point home loss to Middle Tennessee State.  The poor defensive efforts cost DC Al Groh his job.  Once the change at DC was made, the Yellow Jackets season turned for the better.  They won four of their last six games.  When Miami decided to remove themselves from bowl consideration due to NCAA allegations, Georgia Tech became the team with the team with the best record of any non-sanctioned squad in the Coastal Division.  As a result, they got to play in the ACC title game against Florida State.  All of a sudden, Georgia Tech, with a 6-6 mark, found themselves playing for an invite to a BCS game.  As many predicted, Georgia Tech came up short, but their turnaround during the seond-half of their season allowed them the chance to play in a bowl game like the Sun Bowl.  Beating a team like USC would provide the perfect punctuation to the 2012 season for the Yellow Jackets.

Nov 26, 2011; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets cheerleaders perform during the game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Georgia defeated Georgia Tech 31-17. Mandatory Credit: Josh D. Weiss-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Johnson, head coach of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, employs the triple-option offense.  As a result his team is near the top of the FBS in rushing offense (4th) averaging 312 yards per game.  However, all of the rushing yards does not lend itself to much in the passing game.  Consequently the Yellow Jackets are near the bottom of the FBS in passing offense (119th) averaging 134.1 yards per game.  A potential problem of running the triple option is that it does not lend itself to playing from behind.  Since the team does not throw the ball all that often, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to score quickly or gain bunches of yards in a hurry.  If Georgia Tech can stay with or ahead of USC, their offense has the ability to wear down any opponent.  The Yellow Jackets average scoring 34.5 points per game, but they give up nearly 30 points per game.

Something to keep your eye on is how much will does USC have to want to keep coming back after having your legs taken out.  A triple option team like Georgia Tech is very adept at being able to legally chop a players legs so that their runners can get upfield.  You will probably be able to tell USC’s will to fight and win this game, by how well they get off the cut blocks and how well they keep attacking the Tech offensive line.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Southern California is loaded with a star-studded squad, but they may be most reliant on their two prolific wideouts, Marquise Lee and Robert Woods.  Lee was second in the nation in receptions (112),receiving yards (1680), and average yards per game (140.0).  His 14 TDs was good for third in the country.  Not to be outdone, his companion receiver, Robert Woods, had 73 receptions for 813 yards and 11 scores.  The 25 TDs by this duo is second best nationally only to West Virginia’s Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey who had 37 combined scores.

For the better part of the year, the man throwing the passes to Lee and Woods was Matt Barkley until he injured his shoulder prior to the Notre Dame game.  Insert freshman Max Wittek.  In essentially his one-game audition, Wittek completed 61% of his passes for 186 yards with 1 TD and 2 INTs against the best defense in the country in Notre Dame.  Now that Wittek has been taking 1st team reps for almost a month, he should improve against a Yellow Jackets defense that gave up 239.2 yards passing per game.  If given the time to throw, look for Wittek to target both Lee and Woods quite heavily as they go against the smaller Georgia Tech defenders.

On the ground, the Trojans were led by Penn State transfer Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal.  Redd carried the ball 150 times for 817 yards and 9 scores.  While his 2012 numbers were not as good as his 2011 statistics, Redd still led all rushers in carries, yards, and TDs (9).  In a supporting role, Curits McNeal, last year’s starter who rushed for over 1000 yards in 2011, was able to contribute 696 yards and 2 scores on 113 carries.  Georgia Tech allowed close to 150 yards per game on the ground.  This could possibly be one area where USC could find some success.  Look for the Trojans to run the ball around 15-20 times depending on the score.  The run game can help take the pressure off of Wittek and allow the Tech offense to remain on the bench.

For Georgia Tech, running the triple option offense, it basically starts and ends with their quarterback, Tevin Washington.  Washington accounted for 1811 yards or 25% of the teams total offense.  As a quarterback he passed for 1173 yards.  His TD-to-INT ratio was not very good though.  Washington threw 7 TDs and 5 INTs.  However, it is the ability of Washington to run the ball that has made him such a valuable part of the Georgia Tech offense.  On the year Washington was second on the team in rushing yards with 638, but he was far-and-away the team leader in rushing touchdowns with an incredible 19 scores.  While USC cannot solely sell out to stop Washington, it is a good bet that near the goal line, he will be the toting the rock.

Besides Washington running the ball, Georgia Tech will also pitch the ball to leading rusher Orwin Smith.  Smith was unable to play in Tech’s last two games, both losses.  Given the time off between their last game and the Sun Bowl, Smith has gotten healthy and is ready to be unleashed on the USC defense.  On the season, Smith rushed for 673 yards and 5 scores, but don;t let the numbers fool you.  Washington and Smith were a very good 1-2 punch for Georgia Tech.  Smith also is one of the team’s leading receivers.  He was second on the team in pass receptions (17) and receiving yards (271), so he is a player that USC must respect Smith’s playmaking ability not just as a runner, but also as a pass catcher out of the backfield.

PREDICTION

USC – 35

Georgia Tech – 27

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