Saturday, January 3, 2009

Sugar shock

What happened Friday night in the Sugar Bowl?

The shocking part was not so much that Utah won -- the Utes are a veteran team, led by a fifth-year senior quarterback and a very good defense. There's a reason they finished undefeated. But Utah's defensive line physically dominated Alabama, sacking John Parker Wilson eight times, and Brian Johnson simply picked the Crimson Tide apart in the short passing game.

Was the loss of Andre Smith (suspended for alleged dealings with an agent) that significant? Maybe it was. It's hard to believe that Utah could have racked up eight sacks with Smith in the game. But the Utes came from everywhere on blitzes and stunts -- linebacker Stevenson Sylvester had three sacks -- so I'm not sure even Smith could have made that big of an impact in that area.

What really hurt the Crimson Tide was their inability to run the ball. There wasn't a game all season in which they had to rely on Wilson -- their running game made him mostly a role player. But Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram were held to 62 yards on 21 carries Friday, and I think that's where Smith's loss hurt the most. Once Alabama's running game had been mostly neutralized, the Crimson Tide really had nowhere to turn.

Utah coach Kyle Wittingham deserves a ton of credit, of course, for the gameplan on both sides of the ball. Defensively, as mentioned, Utah was able to control the line of scrimmage and hold the Alabama running game in check.

Offensively, the Utes' success can be traced directly to a brilliant decision by the coaching staff: They simply didn't try to run the ball. Utah attempted only 17 running plays, and 10 of those came in the fourth quarter while trying to run out the clock.

Alabama's defensive line, led by monstrous All-American nose tackle Terrence Cody, finished fourth in the country in rushing defense, so Wittingham knew that the Utes weren't going to be able to consistently move the ball on the ground. So he let his veteran QB -- with 33 career starts under his belt coming into the game -- take over, and Johnson came through with the game of his life. The first possession of the game told the story:
Johnson finished 27-of-41 for 336 yards with three touchdowns and, just as importantly, no interceptions.

He did fumble once, early in the third quarter, and Alabama responded with a quick touchdown that cut Utah's lead to 21-17. On the ensuing drive, the Utes went 71 yards in seven plays -- all passes -- capped off by a 28-yard TD throw from Johnson to David Reed that made it 28-17, and Alabama would get no closer.

I'm not going to be one of those people who tries to spin this into yet another example of why we need a playoff in college football, but I will say that Utah deserves all the credit it will get for being the only team in the FBS to finish 13-0. You can't do any better than that.

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