Published November 20, 2014
The USC Trojans are set to tangle with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
USC is back in a bowl game after a two-year NCAA postseason ban, and the team is making its first trip to Texas since the 1998 Sun Bowl. It has been a rather disappointing season for the Trojans, who opened the year as the top- ranked team but stumbled down the stretch, dropping four of their final five contests to fall out of the national rankings. Still, the Trojans' 32 bowl victories are the second-most of any program in the country, and they enter this tilt hungry for No. 33.
"After not being in a bowl the past two years, we look forward to playing in a bowl with the tradition of the Sun Bowl," said USC head coach Lane Kiffin. "Georgia Tech is a very well-coached team and will present a challenge on both sides of the ball, especially with their great ability to run the ball.
"Although our season didn't go as well as we hoped, we appreciate the opportunity we now have to play another game and attempt to go out on a winning note."
Georgia Tech is making its 16th consecutive bowl appearance, which is the fourth-longest active streak in the nation. The Yellow Jackets shook off a 2-4 start to win their final four ACC regular-season games and capture the league's Coastal Division title. They were granted a NCAA waiver to qualify for a bowl game after a loss to Florida State in the ACC Championship dropped the Yellow Jackets below .500.
USC leads the all-time series, 2-1, although this marks the first meeting between these two teams since 1973. Georgia Tech is playing in its second straight Sun Bowl after last year's overtime loss to Utah in El Paso.
The decision by Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley in the offseason to return for his senior year was a bit of a surprise, given his potential high NFL draft status. After an up-and-down 2012 campaign, questions still linger about whether Barkley made the right call, especially since Barkley will miss this bowl game due to a sprained right throwing shoulder.
Barkley did manage to throw for 3,273 yards and 36 touchdowns in 11 games and in the process became the Pac-12 career passing leader. However, he also threw 15 interceptions, with nine of those picks coming during a four-game stretch late in the year that saw the Trojans lose three of four. Barkley was replaced by freshman Max Wittek for the regular-season finale against Notre Dame after suffering the sprained shoulder at UCLA. Wittek will get the nod in this contest.
Wittek's gameplan is similar to Barkley's in that he will look early and often to unanimous All-American receiver and Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee, who also earned Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Lee, the nation's leading receiver, set Pac-12 single-season records for receptions (112) and receiving yards (1,680). Fellow wideout Robert Woods was an All-American last season and owns the school record for career receptions. In the backfield, Curtis McNeal (696 yards) and Penn State transfer Silas Redd (817 yards) lead the way. They'll look for running lanes behind an offensive line that features Rimington Award finalist Khaled Holmes at center and freshman All-American Max Tuerk at tackle.
Defensively, USC really slipped as the season progressed. Over their last five outings, the Trojans allowed an average of 35.6 points. Still, they came to play against Notre Dame, and the players will no doubt want to leave it all on the field for respected defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who will be calling his final game at USC. One area where the Trojans really excel is getting into the backfield, as they rank fourth in the nation in sacks and eighth in tackles for loss. It all starts with defensive end and Hendricks Award finalist Morgan Breslin, whose 12 sacks and 18 tackles for loss are the most by a USC player since 2003. Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Leonard Williams gets plenty of push from his tackle spot, as evidenced by his 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Safety T.J. McDonald, a 2011 All-American, leads the team with 99 tackles.
Georgia Tech's offense is predicated around the spread option under mastermind Paul Johnson, a two-time ACC Coach of the Year since joining the league in 2008. Since 2008, the Yellow Jackets have rushed for more yards than any FBS team. This season, they rank fourth nationally in rushing offense (312.5 ypg) while averaging 34.5 points. Quarterback Tevin Washington orchestrates the option attack, having rushed for 638 yards and an impressive 19 touchdowns to go along with 1,173 yards passing. Those 19 rushing TDs are the second-most in the nation by a QB this season, and his 37 career rushing scores stand as the ACC record for quarterbacks. Running backs Orwin Smith (673 yards) and Zach Laskey (637 yards) also help out in the ground game, as the Yellow Jackets average a very efficient 5.5 yards per carry as a team. Senior offensive guard Omoregie Uzzi earned first-team All-ACC honors for the second straight season.
Georgia Tech's defense has had its ups and downs over the course of the season, but the unit enters the bowl game on a high note. The Yellow Jackets held Florida State scoreless during the second half of the ACC Championship and have not allowed a fourth-quarter point in three games. Strong safety Isaiah Johnson paces the squad with 87 tackles, while fellow defensive back Jemea Thomas is second on the team with 82 stops. Thomas has also notched a team-best four interceptions and six pass breakups. Junior linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu has wreaked havoc behind the line of scrimmage, posting 12.0 tackles for loss and 10.0 sacks. Still, Tech ranks in the middle of the pack nationally in virtually every statistical category, allowing 387.0 total yards (53rd) and 29.9 points (77th).