Georgia Tech returner Jamal Golden came through with another big special-teams play, this one a 56-yard punt return at the start of the third quarter. Golden took the punt on one hop at the Tech 43 and burst through a seam and down the right sideline, getting stopped just shy of the goal line.
Quarterback Tevin Washington scored two plays later to give Tech a 14-7 lead over USC that held up the rest of the day.
“He under-kicked his coverage,” Golden said. “I was thinking, catch it on one hop and try to make it to the end zone.”
It was nearly his third return for a score this season. Golden broke Tech’s 14-year drought on kickoff returns by taking back two long runs for scores this season.
Golden also played more snaps on defense than usual. With safety Isaiah Johnson out for the game with a leg injury, Chris Milton started in his place, but Milton was forced out with an undisclosed injury. Golden, who typically plays cornerback, worked at safety.
“I was not going to be the guy to let my team down,” Golden said.
Just short: With six carries in the Sun Bowl, Tech A-back Orwin Smith would have become the school’s all-time leading in yards-per-carry average for all players with 200 carries. He got just four carries. He finishes with a 9.3 yards-per-carry average on 198 attempts.
“I feel like A.P.,” he said with a laugh, a reference to Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who came up nine yards short of the NFL single-season rushing record Sunday.
Regardless, Smith played a crucial role in the game with his 17-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter that put Tech up 21-7. Smith left the game in the first half after dislocating his shoulder.
After missing the Georgia and ACC Championship game with an ankle injury, he wondered if his Tech career would end with his missing almost all of his last three games. However, team doctor John Xerogeanes worked his shoulder back into place and he played the second half.
“I just kind of prayed on it and just took the chance and went back out there,” he said.
Monkey off back: Coach Paul Johnson earned his first bowl win at Tech after losing his first four. He has received plenty of criticism from fans and media for Tech’s inability to win in the postseason, but he downplayed the personal significance of the win.
“I’m happy for these guys,” he said, referring to the players. “I don’t worry about that stuff. I think I’m happy for our players and the Georgia Tech fans and everybody involved.”
Remarkable run: Going back to the second half of the ACC championship game against Florida State, Tech allowed seven points in its final six quarters of the season. It’s no small achievement given that FSU is ranked No. 12 in the country in scoring offense and USC is No. 34.
Furthermore, Tech played Monday without Johnson, the team’s leading tackler, and also much of the game without outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, the team’s best pass rusher. He was forced from the game with an arm injury.
Not bad work for a defense that had given up 40 points in three consecutive games earlier in the season and six times in all. The longest play Tech allowed was a 25-yard run by Silas Redd.
“We didn’t cause them any issues, but at the end of the day, they didn’t miss any tackles,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “They tackled really well.”
Golden credited interim defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, who took over for Al Groh after the sixth game of the season.
“He’s the reason we played like we did in the second half of the Florida State game and the bowl game,” Golden said.
Etc.: Cornerback Rod Sweeting was named MVP. Center Jay Finch was named the lineman of the game. Golden was named special-teams player of the game. … Attendance for the game was 47,922. Capacity is 50,426. … Tech wore gold helmets, blue jerseys and white pants, the first time it wore that combination. … The officiating crew, which had to reverse itself early in the game with it incorrectly ruled a USC field goal as good, was supplied by the Big Ten.