January 3, 2009

Dominating win a perfect ending for Utah

NEW ORLEANS This calls for an explanation.

Explain why Utah, after finishing an unbeaten season with a 31-17 victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Friday night, cannot be national champions.

It's because college football relies on the BCS computers and the "most important regular season in sports" a company line playoff opponents repeat at every opportunity to determine its champion.

Well, take that propaganda about the greatest regular season in sports and stick it in a trash can.

Better yet, all those BCS advocates, who ignore the obvious and insist a playoff isn't needed to determine college football's national champion, should stick it in a trash can, of course.

Utah's monumental upset of Alabama, which was ranked No. 1 in the nation for five weeks this season, once again proved without question that the BCS is the most asinine system in sports.

"This is a great football team," an elated Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said to Utah fans chanting "Num-ber One, Num-ber One" in a postgame celebration. "I know where I'm moving us [in the coaches' poll]. I'm voting us No. 1."

Why not? Utah quarterback Brian Johnson passed for 336 yards and three touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the country. Meanwhile, Alabama's offense was ineffective against the Utes' defense, which shut down the Crimson Tide's running game and kept constant pressure on John Parker Wilson, who was sacked eight times.

UTAH 31, ALABAMA 17
WHAT HAPPENED
That's what Alabama is wondering. Utah scored on its first three possessions to take a 21-0 lead, and its defense harassed Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson throughout to make that lead stand up.
STAR OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Utah quarterback Brian Johnson was named the game's most valuable player after passing for 336 yards and three touchdowns. When Alabama cut the margin to 21-17 in the third quarter, Johnson promptly led the Utes on a seven-play drive that culminated with his third touchdown pass.
STAR DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Anyone associated with Utah's pass rush could qualify, but linebacker Stevenson Sylvester stood out more than most. He posted seven tackles, including three sacks to tie a Sugar Bowl record, and recovered a fumble. Free safety Robert Johnson certainly deserves recognition for grabbing two interceptions.
TURNING POINT
Alabama had seized momentum early in the third quarter after turning a fumble into a touchdown and cutting the lead to 21-17. But Johnson and the Utes responded. On third-and-10 from Alabama's 28, he completed a pass to David Reed, who spun off an attempted tackle by Tide cornerback Kareem Jackson and raced for the touchdown and a 28-17 lead. Alabama didn't even reach the red zone the rest of the game.
KEY INJURIES
Alabama's Mike Johnson, who started at left tackle in place of suspended Andre Smith, hurt his right ankle with just over eight minutes remaining in the first quarter and did not return.
ETC.
Javier Arenas returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter, marking the sixth time in his career that Arenas has scored on a punt return. Alabama kicker Leigh Tiffin hit a 52-yard field goal to start the second quarter. It equaled the longest field goal ever in a BCS game. It was one yard short of the Sugar Bowl record, which was set by Oklahoma's John Carroll in 1972. He also missed two kicks, though. Utah had 13 rushing yards. The last time the winning team in the Sugar Bowl rushed for fewer than 100 yards was in 2000, when Florida State rushed for 30 yards against Virginia Tech. It was Utah's eighth consecutive bowl victory, the longest such streak in the nation.
As a result, Utah (13-0) is only undefeated team in the nation.

The Utes beat four opponents that finished the regular season ranked in the Top 25, including Oregon State, which beat USC. They won their bowl game over an SEC powerhouse and held Alabama to 31 rushing yards and 208 total yards in the process. And they beat Alabama by a wider margin than did Florida in the SEC championship game.

So what rational argument could be made against Utah?

"I don't know why [the Utes] wouldn't deserve consideration," Whittingham said. "Somebody explain it to me why they wouldn't. There is only one undefeated team in the United States of America in Division I football, and it's these guys right here."

But the Utes have absolutely no chance to be No. 1 even though Florida and Oklahoma, who play Thursday for the national championship, have losses on their records. The problem is the Utes are in the Mountain West, which isn't one of the "Big Six" conferences that get automatic places in BCS bowls.

It isn't right, but that's the way it is.

Utah has grown accustomed to that lack of respect. Many observers thought this game might be a repeat of last season's Sugar Bowl, when Georgia romped over Hawaii, of the Western Athletic Conference, which also isn't among the "Big Six."

Then, during the pregame coin toss, Alabama center Antoine Caldwell appeared to mouth a threat at Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester.

But what really raised Utah's ire was a quote from Alabama coach Nick Saban, who after the SEC championship game loss to Florida, said Alabama was the only team that plays in a real BCS conference that went 12-0 in the regular season.

"From my perspective, I was angry," Johnson said. "I was angry about everything out there. We were 10 1/2-point underdogs. Everybody was making the Hawaii-Georgia comparison. That made me angry, and we had a chance to go out and play with a chip on our shoulders. The entire team fed off that."

Saban apologized for the slight and was annoyed that it remained an issue.

"I guess if that gave them their motivation, then I'm responsible for the way they played," he said. "And I'm responsible for the way we played, so I guess I'm responsible for the whole damn kit and kaboodle."

Well, not completely. A certain amount of responsibility must fall on Alabama All-America offensive tackle Andre Smith, who was suspended from the game, reportedly for having had improper contact with an agent.

Without Smith, a certain first-round choice if he enters the NFL draft, Alabama was without its best offensive lineman and perhaps its best player. To complicate matters, Mike Johnson, who moved from guard and started in Smith's place at left tackle, was lost to an ankle injury early in the game.

"We lost two of our best three offensive linemen in this game," Saban said. "We struggled with their pass rush and pressure. We were basically ineffective running the football, which is the first time all year somebody kept us to less than 100 yards. We didn't do a very good job up front, and this year we've done a great job up front. That's been a trademark of our team."

Coming from behind isn't. The Crimson Tide trailed just once at halftime this season, 17-10 to Florida. This time, they were down 21-0 in the first quarter after Johnson led the Utes to touchdown on their first three possessions. A 73-yard punt return by Javier Arenas was the only first-half touchdown Alabama could manage as the Utes led 21-10 at halftime.

It appeared the tide had turned in the second half when Don't'a Hightower forced Johnson to fumble on the Utes' first play. Wilson's 4-yard touchdown pass to Glen Coffee cut the lead to 21-17.

But Johnson came right back and connected with David Reed on a 28-yard touchdown pass for a 28-17 lead with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Alabama never even reached the red zone from there. Its last possessions ended with a missed field goal, two punts, a fumble and an interception.

"It's been a miracle type of season," Utah All-MWC defensive end Paul Kruger said. "We were hungry. Everyone wanted to come out and dominate and do our thing."

That's definitely what they did.

Yet it's not enough for the Utes to even have an honest shot at the national title. And there is no explanation for that.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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