In a game that was supposed to serve as a springboard to the future, the Hyundai Sun Bowl offered only a reminder of what went wrong for the USC Trojans in 2012 with another disappointing loss, this time 21-7 to Georgia Tech.
The Trojans were making their first bowl appearance in three years but were doing it without senior quarterback Matt Barkley, who injured his shoulder in the UCLA game. Max Wittek got his second start in place of Barkley after an optimstic debut against Notre Dame.
The bigger concerns coming into the game seemed to be on the defensive side of the ball, with Georgia Tech's triple-option attack. Option offenses had given the Trojans so many problems this season that defensive play-caller Monte Kiffin announced his resignation effective at the end of the bowl game.
Ironically, the Trojans actually did a decent job stopping the Yellow Jackets run game. Georgia Tech ran for 294 yards, but it took the Yellow Jackets 63 attempts to reach that total, finishing under their season average of 312 yards per game. As you would expect with so many rush attempts, there were some pretty impressive tackle totals on the USC defense, including Hayes Pullard (16), Leonard Williams (14) and T.J. McDonald (13).
Georgia Tech did get two scoring passes -- one each from Tevin Washington and Vad Lee -- along with a touchdown run from Washington that came after a long punt return put the ball at the USC 1-yard line.
Unfortunately for the Trojans, it was the USC offense that couldn't get much going on a day when the defense kept them in the game.
"I was shocked at how poorly we played on offense," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. "They tackled really well, and they didn't give up the big plays to the outside. They also kept our passing plays in front of them. I was surprised we didn't run the ball better, considering the defensive scheme they ran."
The Trojans actually ran the ball about as well as Georgia Tech did -- USC averaged 4.5 yards per rush to the Yellow Jackets' 4.7 -- but USC ran the ball only 22 times. Silas Redd had 17 of those carries for 88 yards, a total helped by a long run of 25 yards.
Then there was Wittek. As comfortable as he looked against the Irish, he looked equally uncomfortable in windy, cold El Paso. He was overthrowing receivers, staring down routes and getting intercepted at key times. Wittek completed 14 of 37 passes for 107 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.
The Trojans actually were tied at halftime 7-7, but it didn't take long for that to change after a three-and-out by the USC offense from deep in its own end resulted in a line-drive punt that was returned to the USC 1 by Georgia Tech's Jamal Golden. Washington quickly punched in a short run to put the Yellow Jackets in the lead.
That's when the USC offensive troubles really began.
The Trojans either went three-and-out or turned the ball over on downs on their first six possessions of the second half. The turnover on downs came after USC had received the benefit of a punt that grazed a Georgia Tech defender, with Nelson Agholor alertly grabbing the ball near midfield. After USC was unable to do anything with the ball, Georgia Tech drove for its final score to go up 21-7 early in the final quarter.
The Trojans had two red zone scoring opportunities in the fourth quarter to get back in the game, but both possessions resulted in end zone interceptions by Wittek.
"The result of this game wasn't a secret," Kiffin said. "They had the ball in the red zone three times and came away with 21 points. We had the ball in the red zone three times and came away with seven points."
The Trojans came into the game averaging more than 34 points per game, and the Georgia Tech defense was giving up 30 per game. For the Yellow Jackets to hold USC to a single touchdown was a surprise, to say the least, especially when you consider that the only other opponent on the Georgia Tech 2012 schedule that didn't score in double digits was FCS Presbyterian Blue Hose, who were limited to a field goal.
Disappointing stats like those are hard to take for the Trojans, but they kept piling up in 2012. But maybe that's the one consolation that can be taken. The Sun Bowl was played Dec. 31, which means 2012 officially will be in the rear view mirror.
For the Trojans, it can't come soon enough.