Georgia Tech loses to Utah in OT

EL PASO, Texas — Georgia Tech was fewer than 15 minutes from banishing its bowl-game demons. The Yellow Jackets instead will have 12 more months to wrestle them.

On a clear afternoon at the southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains, the Jackets melted down and handed the Sun Bowl to Utah by a 30-27 overtime count. Utes running back John White and nose tackle Star Lotulelei join Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn and LSU’s Charles Scott in the hall of Jackets bowl tormentors.

They helped the Utes make up a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit and win in the first overtime on White’s 8-yard scoring run on a draw play. It surmounted a Tech field goal in its initial possession and extended the Jackets’ bowl-game losing streak to an unlucky seven games.

Said coach Paul Johnson, “You feel like somebody kicked you in the gut.”

The Jackets’ fourth-quarter implosion may sear itself most distinctly in the memory of Tech players and their fans. When inside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy ran back an interception for 74 yards and a 24-10 lead with 4:15 to go in the third quarter, Tech was averaging 8.6 yards per play. From that point on, through overtime, the average was only 2.9 yards per snap. Following the Nealy touchdown, the Jackets had four possessions to grind up the clock and send the Utes packing. However, Tech earned one first down in those four series to keep the Utes’ chances alive.

Three missed field goals, one off the upright and one at the end of regulation that appeared to miss wide by only a few feet, also will haunt. The first two misses and a lost fumble stunted Tech’s production in the first half, when B-back Preston Lyons’s 129 yards were part of a 239-yard effort that produced only seven points.

“We had a lot of opportunities and couldn’t capitalize,” Johnson said.

The come-from-ahead loss was a stunning departure for the Jackets, who have devoured such opportunities. Before Saturday, Johnson’s record at Tech when leading after the third quarter was 29-2.

“To lose for these seniors and all the work we put in, it kills you,” guard Will Jackson said. “We had some plays go our way and then towards the end, plays started going their way. That’s on us.”

The Jackets, who had enjoyed almost unfathomably good fortune with injuries this season, were undercut by a slew of sidelined players. Tech started the game without All-ACC guard Omoregie Uzzi and B-back David Sims, both injured, and offensive tackle Phil Smith and cornerback Louis Young, both held out for disciplinary reasons.

Over the course of the game, A-back Orwin Smith (Tech’s top offensive playmaker), inside linebacker Julian Burnett (Tech’s leading tackler), guard Shaquille Mason (Uzzi’s replacement) and Lyons were sidelined. Only Lyons returned.

Led by Lotulelei, the All-Pac-12 nose tackle, the Utah defensive line took control of the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter and overtime.

“I don’t think we let up,” Johnson said. “We had a lot of different guys in there. We were shuffling around, trying to get guys in the game.”

From there, the defensive shortcomings and special-teams mistakes that have corroded Tech’s season completed Utah’s comeback to secure its 10th win in the past 11 bowls. The Utes (8-5) sped 71 yards in 10 plays, scoring on a fourth-and-goal play from the Tech 3-yard line, to draw to 24-17 with 6:50 remaining.

Two Tech possessions later, Utah’s Griff McNabb maneuvered 31 yards on a punt return to the Tech 24-yard line with 2:21 to play. Facing fourth-and-14 at the Tech 28, quarterback Jon Hays looped a pass to wide receiver DeVonte Christopher over cornerback Jemea Thomas for the game-tying touchdown with 1:32 remaining. Tech’s last-gasp possession in regulation ended in a 48-yard field-goal try by David Scully that slid wide.

Tech finishes 8-5, better than most predicted, but was a handful of plays from at least two more wins. The sizzling 6-0 start that shot Tech into the top 10 nationally in rushing offense, total offense, scoring and passing efficiency has been all but forgotten in the ensuing 2-5 finish.

“We had control of the game, we should have put the game away,” quarterback Tevin Washington said. “It goes back to everything else during the season. We didn’t finish.”

A painful but fitting epitaph.