Bowl champion hats were worn askew. Players piled together for an impromptu team photo, index fingers waving. The Ramblin’ Wreck tooted joyfully.
Georgia Tech celebrated Monday as seven years of bowl failure met an end in the west Texas desert with a 21-7 win over USC in the Sun Bowl.
“I didn’t think it’d feel this good,” offensive tackle Will Jackson said. “It feels awesome.”
The Jackets took down a team that began the season ranked No. 1 in the country and is stocked with future NFL draft picks. They did it in a fashion that has not been the norm since coach Paul Johnson took over in 2008 — with physical, play-making defense.
“We tried to make it interesting the last drive, being knuckleheads,” coach Paul Johnson said, acknowledging a poorly-played possession that extended USC’s life. “Other than that, it was about as good as you can play.”
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Given the caliber of opponent, the Yellow Jackets (7-7) defeated the Trojans (7-6) with perhaps the best defensive effort of Johnson’s five-year tenure. Tech limited USC to 205 yards and 10 first downs, season lows for the Trojans as well as the point total.
It bears mention that USC started redshirt freshman Max Wittek in place of the injured Matt Barkley at quarterback, but consider the following: Notre Dame, which will play for the national championship with what may be the best defense in the country, played the Wittek-led Trojans in the final game of the regular season. The Irish gave up more yards, points and first downs to USC than the Jackets did Monday.
It was an emphatic closing argument for interim defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, who has guided Tech’s defense since Al Groh’s firing six games into the season.
“I think he’s done a great job,” said Johnson, who has held off on making any decisions about the hire. “All of the defensive coaches have done a good job. That was a huge undertaking.”
On the same field where they gave up a 14-point fourth-quarter lead last year in an overtime loss to Utah, the Jackets rose up against the Trojans. With the score 21-7, USC took over on downs at its 29-yard line with 8:32 to play and Wittek promptly drove USC to the Tech 4.
Said A-back Orwin Smith, “I was just (thinking), Please don’t let this happen again.”
On 3rd-and-3, Wittek dropped back to pass. Inside linebacker Quayshawn Nealy dropped back into zone coverage. Wittek threw the ball right at Nealy, who at first bobbled it before securing the interception. With 6:22 left, the game was all but over and then a Tech drive that squeezed almost five minutes from the clock did the rest.
Faced with the challenge of defending Marqise Lee, the nation’s top wide receiver, Tech played zone coverage nearly the whole game, rolling safety help to Lee’s side and using a cornerback to prevent Lee from getting a clean release from the line of scrimmage. Safeties Jemea Thomas and Jamal Golden disguised coverages by shifting before the snap.
It meant that Tech would have to rely heavily on the defensive line to pressure Wittek without blitz pressure.
Defensive ends Izaan Cross and Emmanuel Dieke were particularly up to the challenge, batting down passes at the line and knocking Wittek down or flushing him frpm the pocket. Wittek completed 14 of 37 passes for 107 yards with three interceptions.
Said cornerback Rod Sweeting, “He was rattled the whole game.”
Sweeting intercepted Wittek and also broke up two more passes. After a season in which he has struggled, he was named MVP in his final Tech game.
Said Sweeting, “To go out and play the way we did is a great feeling.”
Tech’s offense rammed the USC defense for 294 rushing yards and 369 total. B-backs David Sims and Zach Laskey combined for 159 yards on just 23 carries, a 6.9 yards-per-carry average.
Quarterback Vad Lee helped give Tech a 7-0 lead on the Jackets’ fourth possession of the game but had two turnovers on the next two possessions. Tevin Washington played the rest of the way as Tech stuck to the run on an afternoon when gusting winds played havoc with the passing game.
Washington guided the crucial possession that put Tech up 21-7, a 62-yard drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters and was boosted by Sims and Laskey. However, after earning a 1st-and-goal from the USC 8, a penalty and a busted run play put Tech in a 3rd-and-goal situation from the 17. Washington rolled left and Smith floated out to the right flat.
“I acted like I was blocking, came across the field, caught it and then tried to make a play,” Smith said.
He slipped a tackle attempt and high-stepped into the end zone.
“It feels great,” Smith said. “I feel like after all the adversity we went through, this just kind of puts icing on the cake. This is what not giving up and hard work can lead to.”