Utah running back John White has only been on campus for one year.
His 26-carry, 116-yard performance helped carry the Utes to a 30-27 overtime win over Georgia Tech at the Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso.
After a season like this it seemed like White has been at Utah for years. But once an 8-yard draw play found him walking into the end zone, it helped Ute fans forget about all the bad memories, focusing instead on the good.
“They trusted me with the ball, so I saw [fullback] Shawn Asiata blast somebody and I knew I was going to go in,“ said White. “As soon as the ball crossed the plain I looked up to the ref and saw his hands go up and knew it was a touchdown so I just wanted to go celebrate with my teammates.”
White was named MVP for his performance which at times seemed like he was doing most of the dirty work himself — particularly when the game counted late and into the overtime period.
His big-time game also earned him the Utes’ all-time single-season rushing record with 1,519 yards, eclipsing the mark set by Ute great Carl Monroe back in 1982.
Despite all the talk about White and his exploits, he was more focused on giving credit to his teammates.
“We just had to find our hearts and just try to go out there and win the game,” said White. “We’re down two touchdowns but after we scored one I knew we had a chance.”
That chance almost didn’t come – were it not for a Utes defense that made stand after stand in the second half.
But stats can be misleading. The Utes coughed up 312 yards on the ground to the Yellow Jackets – the worst single-game total Utah allowed all season.
Combine that astronomical total with another 137 in the air and you wonder why, and how, the Utes were even in this game televised in front of a national audience on CBS.
Like any game, there were reasons why the Utes hung with Georgia Tech.
First off, the game was seesaw from the start, as the normally impotent Utes started hot in Norm Chow’s final game as offensive coordinator.
Utah took a page from Chow’s USC teams of old and masterfully went down the field two minutes in, resulting seven plays later in a one-yard touchdown toss to Shawn Asiata and a 7-0 lead.
But that magic that the Utes had in the first drive disappeared for the rest of the first quarter.
Georgia Tech finally capitalized on a touchdown late in the first — but only after missing a 42-yard field goal on an earlier possession.
Another botched field goal try by Tech — again from 42 yards out — kept the game tied going into halftime.
In all ways, shapes and forms, this game was not easy for Utah. Though White already piled up half of his yardage in the first half of a mostly bored Sun Bowl the Utes were not able to translate their smash mouth style of play into points.
That was largely due to the Yellow Jackets’ triple option. They ran the ball at will on the Utes and chewed up precious clock — particularly with Preston Lyons, a transfer from Colgate who ran for 340 yards all year leading up to the contest. He had 140 alone in the Sun Bowl.
Were it not for the two missed field goals the Yellow Jackets would have had the lead going into the locker room. But the Utes showed moxie on their last drive of the half, employing trickery on a Reggie Dunn reverse that resulted in a 31-yard gain and the ball at the Tech 8.
That’s as far as the Utes would get, however, as they inexplicably threw the ball instead of going to White or the barrel chested Asiata who has been masterful opening holes for the Sun Bowl MVP all season.
Coleman Peterson chipped home a 25-yard field goal and the Utes led 10-7 at halftime.
The second half opened as Utah got the ball first but went three and out, and punted.
With great field position after a 27-yard Utah punt Tech capitalized and tied the game, hitting a 32-yard field goal.
The Utes stalled again, and Tech’s next drive two long pass plays resulted in a 31-yard TD to Stephen Hill.
That’s when things really went wrong for the Utes. A 68-yard kickoff return set Utah up at the doorstep of success, or the Tech 30-yard-line.
But on the very next play Utah quarterback Jon Hays misread his receiver on a jump pass, which was picked off by Tech and returned 73 yards for a touchdown.
Down 24-10 and in danger of losing their second bowl game in a row the Utes nearly lost more than that on their next drive. White fumbled the ball but was able to scoop it up and save Utah’s season.
Had the Utes been down anymore than 14 points you would have surely thought the Sun Bowl was over.
And for the next six minutes that bled into the fourth and final quarter it seemed like the Las Vegas Bowl all over again.
But it wasn‘t going to be today. The Ute defense that had been gashed for gobs of yardage earlier — was hanging tough and forced two consecutive three and outs on Tech.
That’s when the Utes decided to get nasty on offense too. Using their bruising offensive line to gash open holes for White against an undermanned Tech front line, White and Asiata threw Tech defenders off balance with a combination of screen passes and runs up the gut.
Four minutes later on fourth down and goal Hays found Kendrick Moeai on a crossing pattern from three yards out to cut the Tech lead to 24-17.
With an energized Ute defense knowing they were back in the game they forced Tech into another three and out, setting up the stage for what fans thought would be the game-tying drive.
It didn’t work out that way, though. The Utes went three and out, causing fans some indigestion.
With just under three minutes to play, the Utes punted back to Georgia Tech and the Ramblin Wreck went to work, running over tackle on two plays, resulting in six yards and a manageable third down.
But an opportunistic Ute front jammed the middle and forced a fumble, which Tech recovered back where they started the drive.
The Utes had new life. And on the ensuing punt converted quarterback Griff McNabb returned the kick for 31 yards, putting the Utes on the door step to tie the game.
Another costly delay of game penalty — coupled with two incomplete passes — forced the Utes to roll the dice and go for it on 4th down and 14.
Taking a page perhaps from Ronnie Mac the Utes sent Christopher on a fade route wide left and this time Hays found him, stride for stride with his defender, as the ball was cradled over DeVonte’s shoulder and carried past the pylon.
But in a game that stressed Utah fans even the PAT barely made it through the uprights — and then Tech made the game interesting, missing a 48 yard field goal wide right as regulation expired on the next drive — sending the game into overtime.
Georgia Tech finally got the field goal it was looking for, but Utah only had 25 yards to go this time — and this time, White and the Utes wouldn’t be denied.
“I can’t say enough about him, he’s a great running back, I couldn’t wait to go over and celebrate with him and my teammates,” said Hays.