Ranked #1 early in the regular season, the USC Trojans once looked destined for a berth opposite an SEC team in the national championship game on January 6. Much to their dismay, they settled into a season of underachievement not long after sustaining upsets against conference opponents Stanford and Arizona. At just 7-5 to finish the season, this legendary program lost all of its meaningful games to rivals Oregon, UCLA, and Notre Dame, which cast it into the Sun Bowl against an ACC team that arguably had overachieved. Although the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets had ended their regular season one game below USC’s record, they nearly upset an enigmatic Florida State team in the ACC conference championship. A touchdown or so short of the Orange Bowl, they received a waiver into the Sun Bowl despite their losing record and entered as clear underdogs even after an injury sidelined USC quarterback Matt Barkley.
While its much-maligned defense stiffened to keep Georgia Tech’s running attack in check, USC felt the absence of Barkley in its tepid offense. The overeager Wittek threw consecutive incompletions on their first possession to produce a three-and-out, probably influencing Lane Kiffin’s decision to favor run over pass plays when they next received the ball. Placed in strong field position with a weak Georgia Tech punt, USC leaned on Silas Redd to obtain its initial first down. But Andre Heidari, who had struggled with injury for much of the regular season, missed a field goal from medium range to waste the opportunity. (Oddly, the officials called the field goal good before reversing it on a review that showed it clearly wide of the left upright.) The teams traded punts again before the Yellow Jackets found their offensive rhythm on a 14-play, 74-yard drive that began to expose the thinness of the Trojans defense. On this possession, a timeout proved crucial in setting up Georgia Tech to convert a third-and-seven near midfield, and a 27-yard completion by quarterback Vad Lee caught the defense by surprise on the next play.
USC 0, Georgia Tech 0
Building on the momentum from the end of the first quarter, Georgia Tech continued to pound past the USC defense on third downs, culminating with a short touchdown pass on third-and-goal. Suddenly behind in a game that most favored them to win, the Trojans rested their hopes on secondary running back Curtis McNeal, who struggled to gain yardage in another possession that ended near midfield. Each of the next three possessions ended with turnovers after just a few plays, the quarterbacks trading interceptions in a three-play span. While Lee threw to a location without a receiver in the vicinity, Wittek underthrew a pass toward the sideline. Neither interception cost the team that committed it, for Georgia Tech would fumble in USC territory to give the Trojans one more chance to score in the half. Finding star receiver Marqise Lee on a key third-down play, Wittek marched the Trojans into Georgia Tech territory and then handed the reins of the offense to Silas Redd, whose 20-yard run set up USC’s first and-goal opportunity of the game. Redd nearly negated those contributions with a fumble on an ensuing carry, but he smothered it before the defense could reach it and then caught a nine-yard touchdown toss from Wittek for the tying score. Emblematic of USC’s inconsistent effort in the first half was Redd’s juggle of the ball that might have resulted in an incompletion if not for his fine reflexes.
In the first half, Georgia Tech had shown much more intensity than their more heralded opponents, which needed to make halftime to avoid ending their season on a three-game losing streak.
USC 7, Georgia Tech 7
Halted with a three-and-out on their first possession, Wittek overthrew Nelson Agholor on the key play. From there, a short punt by Kyle Negrete and poor coverage by the punting team allowed Georgia Tech to run off the first notable offensive play of the game by either team, a 56-yard return by Jamal Golden that brought the ball within a yard of the goal line. With a first down at that distance, few bowl-eligible teams would fail to convert against a defense as unremarkable as the Trojans. Early in the third quarter, the underdogs from the ACC regained the lead. Lacking a keen radar on his next two passing attempts, Wittek first well underthrew and then well overthrew his intended receivers but fortunately did not commit a turnover as a result. Kiffin called an early timeout to regroup his offense before the third down that followed, a tactic that failed when the receiver dropped the pass under pressure. Responding with aplomb, the Trojans defense forced a mirroring three-and-out by pressuring Lee into incompletions. USC then produced its sixth three-and-out (or worse) of its first nine possessions. Moving the ball into Trojans territory, Georgia Tech set up an intriguing fourth-and-one following their first timeout of the half. Their coach made the sensibly conservative call of a punt, considering how severely the opposing offense had struggled.
Keeping Marqise Lee in check as they had so well for most of the game, Georgia Tech stifled USC again before the Pac-12 squad found a crucial bit of good fortune with the third Yellow Jackets turnover on a muffed punt return. Now set up at the Georgia Tech 44, USC quickly found itself in third-down territory again when their running game continued to sputter. On fourth-and-four, a flustered Wittek underthrew a pass that a defensive lineman helped to swat to the ground, preventing the turnover from costing his side points. A quick completion from Lee energized the Georgia Tech offense, which plowed inside the opposing red zone past a demoralized and weary Trojans defense. Through three quarters, the stagnation of an offense that had collected just four first downs had subjected the defense to too much pressure.
Georgia Tech 14, USC 7
Stiffening again after the break between periods, the USC defense produced a second-down sack that (coupled with a small penalty) thrust Georgia Tech into a third-and-long. Undeterred by that inauspicious situation, Lee found an open receiver for a catch-and-carry play into the end zone, helped by the amount of time provided him by an ineffective pass rush. The latest three-and-out put the Trojans in serious jeopardy of becoming the only FBS opponent to fail to reach double digits in points against Georgia Tech all season. Driving into USC territory almost without resistance, the Yellow Jackets threatened to render the last several minutes meaningless with a score that would have moved them ahead by three possessions. But a fourth-down stop for negative yardage denied them any points on a day when the wind rendered field-goal attempts unwise gambles. Six minutes into the quarter, USC finally moved the chains for the first time in the second half, and an inexplicable personal-foul penalty improved their field position. Unloosed through a sagging Georgia Tech defensive line, Redd surged inside the red zone, where Wittek sensibly found Lee for short completions that allowed the play-maker’s athleticism and speed to shine.
USC had passed on all thirteen of its previous third downs, and the fourteenth proved no exception. Rather than finding a teammate in red and gold, however, Wittek launched the football towards the end zone and into the grasp of a defender, who hardly could believe his luck as he juggled it before securing possession as he fell to the turf. From there, Georgia Tech gained the first downs necessary to drain the clock on one of the bowl season’s most surprising results.
Final score: Georgia Tech 21, USC 7
The last embarrassment in a humiliating season, the Sun Bowl loss left USC as the first preseason #1 to finish with six losses since the current ranking system started in 1950. Also disappointing for the Pac-12 was a defeat that assured the conference a non-winning record in 2012-13 bowls, although it retained an opportunity to win the two most important bowls on its schedule. For Georgia Tech, which halted the nation’s second-longest bowl losing streak at seven, the upset ended an inconsistent season on an uplifting note and provided solace for the missed opportunity to reach the Orange Bowl at the ACC championship game. Their defense especially excelled at stopping the speedy Trojans playmakers in a remarkably resilient for a team that ranked in the lower half of the FBS in that category.