Johnson Knows Utah Presents A Big Challenge In the Hyundai Sun Bowl

Dec. 10, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

In his short trip to El Paso, which was not a scouting trip but rather an obligation, Paul Johnson was not surprised. He learned nothing of Georgia Tech’s Sun Bowl opponent that he did not already know.

Utah may be 7-5, but the Utes figure to be a tough matchup on New Year’s Eve.

You, though, might not yet be aware of some of the similarities between these squads. They’re both young, and both suffered horribly when last they played.

We’ll stack comments by Johnson and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham back-to-back here, semi-fresh from their Sun Bowl press conference Thursday in El Paso:

“You look at our roster and 31 of our 44 players on our two-deep are freshmen or sophomores,” Johnson said of his team. “We always play our in-state rival in the final game of the season. It’s big … it’s for bragging rights in the state. Losing a game like that stings a little more.”

Whittingham, whose team has 13 scholarship seniors to Tech’s 10, said: “When we left Air Force (in the Mountain West), I thought, ‘We’re done with this (unusual offense). Now it’s rearing its ugly head again.

“As a former defensive coordinator, if you can pick one team you don’t want to have to deal with, it’s the triple option. I know our defensive coordinator (Kalani Fifita Sitake) was excited to move to the Pac-12. Now, here we go again.”

What Whittingham did not say was that his team suffered worse, much worse perhaps, in the way the Utes’ regular season ended. All they had to do was beat Colorado, at home, and Utah would’ve punched a ticket to the PAC 12 conference championship game against Oregon.

The Utes lost 17-14 (reminder: at home) to a bad team, sending a worse team (UCLA) to the conference championship game (a concept whose time never should have come).

So much for an idyllic entry to a new conference.

Although Utah’s first season in the PAC 12 did not go as swimmingly as Whittingham is accustomed to seeing seasons go, his team did not go lightly nor for lack of effort – or run defense.

The Utes dodged PAC 12 monsters Oregon and Stanford, but they held their own in a 23-14 loss at USC. Having allowed just 97 rushing yards per game, they can hang their hat on the fact that just six teams in the nation were more stingy in that way and two of them will play in the BCS Championship Game.

Given all the old sayings about how important it is to be able to run the ball and stop the run, and the fact that Utah junior tailback John White is 11th in the nation in rushing (1,404 yards, or 117 per game), just how did this team end up 7-5?

The Utes have been vulnerable against the pass, and not very good throwing it.

They’ve allowed 245+ yards per game in the air to rank No. 89 nationally although they’ve more interceptions (19) than touchdown passes allowed (17). Utah also ranks No. 99 in passing offense (167+) to Tech’s No. 112 (142+) even though the Utes throw it twice as much (302 attempts to Tech’s 152).

Starting quarterback Jordan Wynn went down for good in the fourth game with a shoulder injury, and there went the passing attack.

“It was figuring out who we were, what our mode of operation was going to be,” Whittingham said. “Initially we put too much on our quarterback (Jon Hays), we turned the ball over more than we could afford. We got better once we got (Hays) settled down. And there was a big dose of John White.”

Indeed.

Tech knows about heavy doses of running the ball.

The Jackets are No. 3 in the nation in rushing offense (316.8 yards per game).

“This will be a challenge for us,” said Whittingham, who was promoted at Utah after Urban Meyer left to become head coach at Florida.

On paper, it looks like quite a challenge for Tech. Beyond the similarities of their disappointing losses in season finales, which really weren’t that similar inasmuch as Tech lost to a top 10 team and Utah lost to a heavy underdog, these teams might be said to have traveled in different directions.

Tech started the season 6-0 and lost four of six. Utah began the PAC 12 season 0-4 and then won four straight conference games only to be stunned by the other conference newcomer.

“They kind of got into a groove,” Johnson said. “Historically, they always play great defense. When you are good on defense, you are never out of a game.”

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