Dec. 26, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Yellow Jackets set down in El Paso on Monday, and in the midst of being warmly welcomed by Sun Bowl officials and other locals, Georgia Tech head football coach Paul Johnson was gifted with a sombrero and pressed to do a jig while wearing it.
Surely, you wish you were there.
Chances are you were not. Know this, though: in that brief, unusual, moment, it did not become clear whether Johnson is a dancer at heart or not. Perhaps it’s a private thing.
There is, however, no dancing around this very public fact: Tech is going to have a tough, tough time beating Utah Sunday if the Jackets cannot slow Utes’ running back John White.
Jason Peters knows it; he’s been down this road before.
The Tech defensive end will soon wrap his college career, and it will have been in at least one way a numbingly consistent ride.
Since Peters red-shirted as a freshman, each of his seasons has drawn to a close with him and fellow Tech defenders staring across the line of scrimmage at a consortium of men whose ambition is to go over-land.
Utah, like LSU, Iowa and Air Force among prior Tech bowl opponents, prefers to run the ball a bit more than toss it around.
“They like to run the ball down your throat,” Peters said. “We have to make sure we take away what they do best. Stopping the run game is key; I think that’s their bread and butter.”
That would be understatement; Utah is ranked No. 99 in the nation in passing yards per game (171+) despite throwing it several more times per game than Tech.
Slow White, and the Jackets will be able to see the finish line because unlike Tech — which spreads the ball around — the rest of the Utah attack is limp. Even with the 11th-ranked running back in the land, the Utes are No. 82 in rushing offense (137.1 yards per game).
Beyond White, the Utes rush for 20 yards per game.
Air Force was not over-sized up front, where the Cadets — much like the Jackets — deploy some unusual blocking techniques.
But like the Tigers and Hawkeyes, the Utes are an oafish bunch. They don’t miss training table, perhaps ever. Their goal is to knock you cross-eyed.
Across that front, Utah goes 300, 316, 300, 300 and 315 pounds with no starter falling below 6-feet-3. The backups go 312, 297, 300, 317 and 314.
Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow also favors tight ends, whom he coaches as a position group, and the top three on the depth chart are 6-4, 246, 6-5, 260 and 6-4, 255.
Perhaps a bigger trick than solving Utah’s size will be addressing the juxaposition of the mite who runs behind the Utes’ might.
White, who is 11th in the nation with an average of 117 rushing yards per game, is just 5-8, and some186 pounds. He’s quicksilver.
To summarize quickly, sometimes it’s tough to see the shrub for the forest in the way. That was a particular problem against Virginia.
And when the shrub has a turbo, well, that can be a pain in the pads.
“[White] will find just little, minute things and make big plays out of them,” Peters said. “He can just disappear, and he pops out and he’s gone. We have to get off blocks and do our jobs up front.
“He really hits the holes fast, and runs extremely hard. If there’s a crease, he finds it. He takes advantage of his teammates.”
This is not the most massive bunch in the NCAA, but it’s bigger than what the Jackets practice against, and comparable — at least in size — with a few fronts that wore down the Jackets earlier this season, namely at Virginia and Miami, and against Virginia Tech and Georgia.
Tech fared better against another big front in beating North Carolina, sort of, or perhaps the Jackets’ offense was to be cited that day as it was a 35-28 win.
Clemson had some big uglies, too, and Tech won that one.
So, it can be done.
“We have to get right some things that we haven’t had right in the past,” Peters said. “It’s about not trying to do too much . . . make sure we communicate with each other, and we’re on the same page.”
About to close a book for good, Peters wants to re-write the endings to previous chapters.
Should he and his mates succeed, they can help Johnson chalk up that hat & dance routine as something funny rather than an ugly reminder. A sombrero carries crummy connotations in some places, and it’s about time Johnson wipe that slate clean.
I’m testing your knowledge of sports vernacular, and recent Tech bowl history. Let me know if that last paragraph makes sense. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.