(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
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
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
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
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
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Utah 23, Alabama 17
12/30 11:13:51 ET