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(7) Utah (12-0) vs. (4) Alabama (12-1)



Friday, January 2nd, 8:17 p.m. (et)

The Sports Network

By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor

GAME NOTES: For the second year in a row, an undefeated team from outside a BCS conference invades New Orleans as the seventh-ranked Utah Utes challenge the fourth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in the 75th annual Sugar Bowl inside the Louisiana Superdome on Friday night.

The Utes, under the direction of Kyle Whittingham, who on Monday was signed to a five-year contract extension, are just the second team to enter the postseason with an unblemished record this year, the other being Boise State which bowed to TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl.

While it doesn't seem like such a big deal now, the Utes kicked off 2008 with a road win against Michigan in Ann Arbor and ran the table from there. There were a couple of close calls along the way, like a 31-28 victory over Oregon State in early October and a 13-10 triumph versus TCU in Mountain West Conference action the following month, but for the most part Utah handled all of the attention well. In fact the Utes, who were sixth in the BCS rankings, quieted the critics by pounding nationally-ranked BYU in the regular-season finale, 48-24.

As for the Crimson Tide, led by the 2008 Walter Camp Coach of the Year in Nick Saban, they held the top position in the AP poll down the stretch as they put together a perfect record themselves for most of the campaign. However, there were several tight games for 'Bama along the way as the team won by a combined seven points against Kentucky and Ole Miss in back-to-back outings, and then had to go to overtime before dismissing Saban's former LSU Tigers squad in a 27-21 decision in November. Like the Utes, Alabama was 12-0, but unlike their bowl opponents, the Tide still had one last hurdle in the SEC Championship game, and the Florida Gators were not about to let a shot at a national title game slip through their fingers. Ironically, it was former Utah head coach Urban Meyer who knocked off Alabama in a 31-20 contest the first week of December.

Already with an 8-4 record in the Sugar Bowl, the Crimson Tide have the most bowl wins of any FBS program with a 31-21-3 mark. Last year the Tide took part in the Independence Bowl for the second straight season and defeated Colorado with a 30-24 final, giving the team two bowl wins in the last three opportunities.

In the case of the Utes, who are facing Alabama for the first-time ever, their postseason history dates back to a 26-0 win against New Mexico in the 1939 Sun Bowl and continued with a 35-32 victory over Navy in last year's Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. Utah, now 10-4 in bowls, has won seven in a row in the postseason, stretching back to the 1999 Las Vegas Bowl.

For someone who missed the entire 2006 season while recovering from knee surgery, quarterback Brian Johnson has fought his way back in a big way for the Utes by being named the Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year for 2008. The Offensive MVP of the Poinsettia Bowl last season, Johnson converted better than 68 percent of his pass attempts this time around for 24 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. Sacked often enough that he ended up losing 222 yards in rushing in 2008, Johnson didn't let the pressure get to him as he distributed the ball to a multitude of receivers.

Freddie Brown heads the list with his 65 catches for 775 yards and seven touchdowns, but a player like David Reed made sure that the signal-caller always gave him a second look because he was able to turn just 23 grabs into 369 yards and five scores as well. Colt Sampson provided more of the same as half of his 10 catches ended up in the end zone.

"Well, I think both quarterbacks are invaluable to their teams respectively," noted coach Whittingham in a recent press conference when asked about Johnson. "Numbers are one thing, but in my opinion the number one thing you look at in a quarterback is win/loss record. And our guy (Johnson) has won 20 of his last 21 starts. He's the all-time winning quarterback in Utah history as far as number of wins."

Johnson wasn't the only player to throw a TD for Utah this season however, as running back Matt Asiata ran several trick plays and took direct snaps from center in posting a pair of touchdown strikes himself. In addition, Asiata also led the team on the ground with 678 yards and 11 touchdowns as the squad came away with 23 scores by way of the running attack in order to keep defenses off balance.

During one stretch this season the Utes limited five straight opponents to 16 points or less, a streak that allowed the program to place second in the MWC and 12th nationally in terms of scoring defense overall with just 17.3 ppg permitted. The run defense stood as a more potent measure for the squad as it limited the opposition to only 104.8 ypg, second-best in the conference and 14th in the country through 12 games.

Making sure that he influenced that number heavily was Paul Kruger, who finished fifth on the team in total tackles with 56 and was first in both tackles for loss (15.5) and sacks (7.5), not to mention second in pass breakups with seven. First in pass breakups was Sean Smith as he recorded a team-best five interceptions, returning the collection for a combined 151 yards. Joe Dale and DeShawn Richard added three picks each as the team loaded up with 17 interceptions overall. Thanks to the 11 fumbles gained and an offense that took good care of the ball, Utah placed 16th in the country in terms of turnover margin with a plus-0.92 per outing.

Although he doesn't fall under the umbrella of the defense necessarily, kicker/punter Louie Sakoda has to be mentioned in one form or another for the Utes seeing as how he became just the second player from any program to be named as a finalist for both the Lou Groza and Ray Guy awards in the same season. A three-time MWC Special Teams Player of the Year, Sakoda does as much for the offense for the Utes as he does for the defense when he pins opponents deep in their own territory.

"Louis Sakoda is a special guy," coach Whittingham said recently. "I don't know if I've ever been in a situation where the most popular guy on your team is the kicker...He was a unanimous All-American, which is a first in the history of the school."

The biggest news heading into this game for the Crimson Tide is that offensive lineman and Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith was suspended for the contest on Monday. Coach Saban released a statement saying, "Andre Smith has been suspended from participating in the Sugar Bowl due to a violation of team rules and policies. The University of Alabama, the team and the football program are more important than any individual player."

With Smith out of the lineup the job of quarterback John Parker Wilson gets a little more difficult. The signal-caller didn't do all that much in terms of passing the ball this season, converting 57.7 percent of his attempts for nine touchdowns and just six interceptions, but he'll still have to be on his toes now that the Utes have a slightly easier path into the backfield. It may affect the manner in which he tries to swing passes out to Julio Jones who led the program with 51 catches for 847 yards and four touchdowns. Second behind Jones in terms of receptions was Nick Walker with 29 for just over 10 yards apiece, leading to a pair of touchdowns.

Clearly the bread-and-butter for this group is the rushing attack headed by Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram who combined to generate more than 2,000 yards on the ground and 22 of the group's 32 rushing scores. Coffee finished third in the conference and 22nd in the nation with an average of 103.6 ypg this season. Alabama was far from a dominant team on offense this season, ranking sixth in the SEC and 56th in the country with an average of 367.2 ypg and 30th with 31.2 ppg.

"This is a very challenging team," coach Saban said of the Utah offense against which he and the Tide were preparing. "They may be as effective throwing the football, like a 68 or 69 percent completion percentage, as anybody we have played all year. They have a very good passing efficiency. They have a very good quarterback and the receivers are all good route runners."

With that in mind, Alabama will need to get pressure into the backfield in order to upset the rhythm of the Utes and that's a job that will fall to guys like Bobby Greenwood and Brandon Deaderick who tied for the team high with four sacks apiece. Top tackler Rolando McClain, who finished with 91 stops in his 13 starts, accounted for three sacks and made a team-best 11 stops behind the line of scrimmage. More than anything, the Crimson Tide are well trained at breaking up plays before they reach the line of scrimmage, resulting in an outstanding 78 TFLs.

While an average of six TFLs per game doesn't sound like a lot, it does when one considers it is nearly twice the number that opponents were able to generate this season against the Tide. The run defense for the program ranked first in the SEC and was fourth in the country with just 78.9 ypg surrendered, while the group was third in the nation overall with a mere 256.9 ypg allowed total. By limiting seven teams to 10 points or less, it is easy to see how the Crimson Tide ranks second in the league and sixth nationally with 13.0 ppg allowed this season. Second on the team with 82 tackles and first with five interceptions, Rashad Johnson is a player that the Utes can not lose track of when Alabama shows different defensive schemes.

Often showing an unrelenting approach on both sides of the ball, Whittingham knows full well that this ride is not over yet and will squeeze every ounce of energy from his players in order to make a good showing. Saban may get more of the headlines, while Whittingham would much rather be a footnote to his team's success.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Utah 23, Alabama 17

12/30 11:13:51 ET


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