Georgia Tech's maligned defense took the brunt of the blame for the Yellow Jackets' losing record in the regular season.
In one brilliant, windy afternoon, that defense turned a forgettable season into a memorable Hyundai Sun Bowl. Georgia Tech won 21-7 Monday because of its defense, not despite it.
It won because of three interceptions, eight three-and-outs and just 205 yards allowed, an effort that began with a 2-yard USC run and ended with Jamal Golden's interception.
The Yellow Jackets broke a seven-game bowl losing streak and became the first team in major college football history to finish 7-7. USC finished 7-6.
"We came out with a chip on our shoulder," said linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, whose end-zone interception with 6:22 remaining basically clinched the game. "We should have been doing this from the first. We turned on a switch and we didn't turn it off."
USC freshman quarterback Max Wittek made his second career start and he was devoured whole. His final passing line was 14-of-37 for 107 yards (2.9 yards per attempt) and three interceptions. Almost half of those went to All-American receiver Marqise Lee and most were in the flat, as Lee had six receptions for just 41 yards.
Often the ball didn't get past the line of scrimmage before it was batted down.
"Obviously it was a very disappointing day, coming down to turning the ball over and third-down efficiency (the Trojans were 3-of-15 on third down), really nullifying anything on offense," USC coach Lane Kiffin said.
"The defense did very well, they played hard. They wore down as the game went along and that's to be expected when we turn the ball over that many times. Both teams were in the red zone three times, they scored 21 and we scored seven. It was a very surprising day. I thought our offense would play better. It came down to inefficiency on offense and that starts with the head coach.
"We put Max in a very tough position today by not being really efficient running the ball, number one, and then putting him in a lot of third-and-longs."
Kiffin and Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson felt the wind, officially listed as 14 miles per hour at kickoff, but gusting much harder, played a major role.
"It affected it totally," Johnson said. "Going against the wind, we weren't going to try to throw the ball. There wasn't much you could do."
Georgia Tech did enough. For most of the afternoon the Yellow Jackets were poor on special teams, but the game-breaking play was a 56-yard punt return from Golden early in the third quarter of a 7-7 game that set his team up on the Trojan 1-yard line.
"Huge," Johnson said.
When Tevin Washington busted in two plays later, the Jackets had all the points they would need.
USC had four first downs in the first three-and-a-half quarters, and as the three-and-outs piled up, the Trojan defense began to fray.
The telling sequence began in the latter stages of the third quarter after Georgia Tech muffed a punt to hand USC the ball on the Jacket 44. USC was down just 14-7, but with a chance to join the battle, it gained six yards on four plays, turning it over on downs after a batted fourth-down pass. That was one of eight passes Georgia Tech deflected.
Washington began the next drive with a 27-yard strike to Jeremy Moore, one of the Jackets' five completions and one of two to a receiver. Seven runs, most up the middle, ensued to put Georgia Tech in a third-and-goal from the 17-yard line, and this time Washington went to his tailback Orwin Smith, who was open on the 10.
Smith made a defender miss and found the end zone to complete the 62-yard drive for the game's final points.
"If it wasn't for the wind we could have had a lot of plays," Washington said. "It was good to hit some passes when you get a chance."
USC did put together two late drives -- the final one was greatly aided by 44 Georgia Tech penalty yards -- but both ended with Wittek interceptions.
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, had 202 yards of offense in the second half to USC's 89.
"This was one of the most fun games I've ever played," said a-back Zach Laskey, who had 60 rushing yards on just six carries. "Watching our defense swarm like that, that was something they haven't done since I've been here."
They also hadn't won a bowl game since any of the current players or coaches have been there, but that streak was blown away on a windy day in El Paso.
Bret Bloomquist may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6359. Follow him on Twitter @bretbloomquist