El Paso, Texas • Utah's 2011 football season will not only be remembered for Utah's inaugural experience in the Pac-12, but also for the way the defense carried the team in the absence of starting quarterback Jordan Wynn.
It's fitting then that Utah's defense gets one last chance to shine as the Utes face Georgia Tech (8-4) in the Sun Bowl Saturday.
The game kicks off at noon and will be televised by CBS.
Since the Yellow Jackets are the nation's third best rushing team, averaging 316.8 yards a game, and Utah's defense has a strong reputation for shutting down rushers, the Utes (7-5) view Saturday's contest in Sun Bowl Stadium as a great chance to put their final stamp of ownership on the 2011 season.
"It's an exciting offense and it can be hard to stop, but that's why we like the challenge," safety Brian Blechen said. "You always want to stop the run and they are such a good running team, we've been working hard and watching film and getting ready for it. You can't prepare enough for it."
In a testament to their team-mindfulness, Utah's defenders are careful to give credit to Utah's offense for games won this year as much as to themselves.
"There have been times when they've bailed us out too," linebacker Chaz Walker said.
Really, those times were scarce as the Utes' defense strives to own games.
"If our offense can score 10 points, then our defense better hold [the opponent] to nine points or less," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "That has always been our mentality, we want a shutout every game."
The Utes never got a shutout this year but do rank 18th nationally, giving up just 19.7 points a game. That is an impressive number on its own, but even more so given the number of turnovers and other struggles the Utes' offense had that put the defense in bad situations.
For a season that was anticipated to be all about Norm Chow's new offense, 2011 was more of the same for the Utes as the defense shut down one team after another.
The only game the Utes had a poor defensive showing was in the 34-10 loss to Cal when the Utes gave up 384 yards, Whittingham said.
"The defense has played well from the onset, from Game 1 through Game 12," he said. "We've had very consistent football, at or near the top of all the major statistics and I attribute that to the attitude and work of the defensive players."
Others attribute it to the Utes' system, which was put in place by Whittingham's father, Fred, and honed by his son.
It is so consistent that even Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Brian Bohannon, who was on Navy's staff in 2007, sees similarities between the defense he played that day and the one his Georgia Tech team faces in the Sun Bowl.
"I left the field that day impressed with how tough they are and I don't think it will be any different now," he said. "The personnel is different, but the scheme and the way they recruit, they are not going to change a whole lot."
Going out with another dominating showing against Georgia Tech is just how Utah's defenders want it.
Utah's defense was picked apart by Boise State last year in the Las Vegas Bowl as the Utes gave up 543 yards of offense to the Broncos in the 26-3 loss.
The Utes don't desire another long offseason regretting their bowl performance.
"It's a running team, so we have a good chance to show everybody what a solid defense we have," tackle Star Lotulelei said. "It's not about what the offense or defense does, we are a whole team, but our mentality is we still have to go out and get a shutout. That is our job."
Georgia Tech vs. Utah
P Kickoff • Dec. 31, noon MT
TV • CBS
Radio • ESPN700
Records • Utah 7-5; Georgia Tech 8-4
Series history • Utah leads 1-0
Last meeting • Utah won, 38-10 on Dec. 29, 2005
About the Utes • The Utes are 6-1 in bowl games under coach Kyle Whittingham. ... Utah's first bowl appearance was in the 1939 Sun Bowl when Utah beat New Mexico 26-0. ... Running back John White needs 104 yards to set a school record for most rushing yards in a season. He currently has 1,404 yards. ... Offensive lineman Miles Mason (elbow injury) and defensive lineman Dave Kruger (leg infection) won't play.
About the Yellow Jackets • Georgia Tech has not won a bowl game since the 2004 Champs Sports Bowl when it beat Syracuse 51-14. Since then, the Yellow Jackets are 0-6. ... Offensive tackle Phil Smith and cornerback Louis Young won't play in the game due to team disciplinary reasons. â¦ The Yellow Jackets average 316.8 yards on the ground and 142.75 passing yards. ... Paul Johnson is 34-18 in his fourth year as Georgia Tech's coach.
Defending the (bowl) house
Utah's defense is known for its stingy play. Here is how the defense has done in bowl games under coach Kyle Whittingham
Year Opp. Rush Yds Allowed Pass Yds Allowed Result
2010 Boise State 202 341 L 26-3
2009 Cal 96 310 W 37-27
2009 Alabama 31 177 W 31-17
2007 Navy 316 122 W 35-32
2006 Tulsa 96 158 W 25-13
2005 Georgia Tech 127 258 W 38-10
2005 Pitt 17 251 W 35-7