Let’s go bowling! Utes prepare for Emerald Bowl matchup

Kyle Whittingham said it’s ironic that in a season full of unfulfilled expectations, the U football team faces a “much tougher opponent” this year than it did following last year’s historic undefeated run.

But that’s the boat in which the Utes find themselves as they get set to take on No. 24 Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl Dec. 29 in San Francisco’s SBC Park.

“I think we drew the best 7-4 team in the country,” the first-year Utah head coach said. “We’re going to have to bring our A-game to have a chance.”

After blowing out Pittsburgh, the champion of a weak Big East, in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, the Utes (6-5, 4-4 MWC) face a Georgia Tech squad (7-4, 5-3 ACC) that has been a giant killer this season. It defeated both Auburn and Miami on the road and nearly took down No. 8 Georgia in the team’s season finale.

“(Georgia Tech is) an excellent football team,” Whittingham said. “Anybody that can beat Miami at Miami and beat Auburn at Auburn, and play Georgia right down to the wire, is obviously a quality team.”

A victory against an opponent like the Yellow Jackets would be quite a capper for the Utes, who have endured a difficult season from the very beginning. The Utes’ late-season victory over BYU propelled them into the postseason, and they expect to make the most of it.

“(This) is great for our players. It’s exciting for our players to have the chance to line up against a storied program like Georgia Tech,” Whittingham said. “There’s a lot of game-planning that we’re going to have to do in the next couple weeks.”

To say that they have had their share of ups and downs this season would be an understatement. But things ended on an upswing, as replacement quarterback Brett Ratliff and the Utes stunned BYU in Provo to close out the regular season. Ratliff, the junior transfer from Butte College, will have his hands full with the Jackets’ defense, which ranks No. 10 in the country and snagged 26 takeaways this season, second-best in the ACC.

“They’re a great team. It’s going to be a great opponent to play,” Ratliff said. “We’re looking forward to them. We need to play our best game, and that’s what we expect to do.”

Facing a defense that is both tough to run on and extremely opportunistic, the Utes will have their hands full but are confident they can find ways to beat the Jackets.

“We’re the No. 12 offense in the nation, we just need to keep doing what we’re doing, just focus on our strengths and try to pick them apart with that,” Ratliff said.

Things don’t get much easier for Utah on the other side of the ball. The Ute defense has been steadily improving in all areas over the course of the season but now has to contend with an All-American receiver, the third-best rushing attack in the conference and an offensive line that has yielded just eight sacks all season. Calvin Johnson, in just his second year, has earned All-America honors from the American Football Coaches Association and is just another in a long line of big, physical receivers whom the Utes have had to face this season.

As was the case against Wyoming (Jovon Bouknight) and New Mexico (Hank Baskett), junior Eric Weddle is expected to line up against Johnson and try to neutralize his game-breaking abilities.

“He’s a great wide receiver. A lot of people think he’s one of the best in country, and it shows on film,” Weddle said. “He’ll be the best wide receiver I go against, and I’m excited about the challenge.”

Whittingham, who will be in charge for the first time in a bowl game, said he has to tread a “delicate balance” over the next couple of weeks as he prepares his team for its season finale.

“It’s a big challenge for us,” he said. “We don’t want to overwork them. The bowl game should be a reward. It should be a great experience. You don’t want to make it miserable for them, but at the same time you want to win the game.”

But despite a desire to not overwork itself, the team is focused on not only playing well against Tech, but also on coming away with a victory.

“It’s a big statement game for the Mountain West Conference and for us,” senior tailback Quinton Ganther said.

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