The Battles Within Sugar Bowl War

Conventional wisdom has it that Alabama's offensive plan against Utah in the Sugar Bowl Friday night is to run the ball at the Utes. Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged that. But he also sees another challenge for Utah, one that he thinks will be worth watching.

Alabama, 12-1 and ranked fourth in the nation, and Utah, 12-0 and ranked sixth in the nation, will meet at 7 p.m. CST Friday in the Louisiana Superdome in the 75th annual Sugar Bowl. Fox will televise the game.

In his first two meetings with reporters, Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham has addressed the "physicality of their football team. We have our hands full."

In a Sunday morning press conference, Whittingham said, "The first thing that jumps out to you on tape is the physicality of both (Alabama) lines. There is no question they will be the most physical team we have played. To match their physicality, they have great size and great strength; we are a little bit undersized on the defensive line so we are going to rely on quickness and technique. I don't like the word finesse but we are going to have to move a lot, slant and twist and that type of thing which is what we have been doing all season long so it's not unique to us. That is something we have to have an answer for.

"The power run game they bring at you is their bread and butter. If we don't have answer we will be in trouble. We are going to have to load the box up, it's not secret we are going to have to put eight or nine guys in the box to stop their run game or at least slow it down."

In brief remarks Saturday, Whittingham had said, "Without a doubt Alabama has the best offensive line we have seen all season. Andre Smith, their left tackle, is what he is--the best lineman in college football. Alabama plays smash mouth football. They are going to try to run the ball right down your throat. They don't care if you know it. they are going to continue to do it; it's their MO. And, of course, they run a nice play-action pass off of that.

"Alabama's offensive line is really what makes their offense go."

It was no surprise that Whittingham was asked about his defensive line. "The defensive line got a little banged up earlier in the year," he said. "We lost Lei Talamaivao, one of our defensive tackles who played a great deal and he got hurt early in the season. Kenape Elaipo (6-0, 303), our other defensive tackle, we lost him to an injury for about six weeks so we had to shuffle the deck a little bit. Greg Newman (6-4, 260) did a great job for us as a playmaker from the defensive tackle position. We also moved in Derrick Shelby from the end spot, he is about 240 (listed as 6-3, 245) pounds, a light-weight relative to the position he plays. The play we got out of those two kids and the play out of our two ends...

"We are very high on our two ends, Koa Misi (6-3, 263) and Paul Kruger (6-5, 265). I think they are one of the strengths of this football team. The play we got from both guys this season was instrumental to our success.  Paul (Kruger) was a first-team all-conference guy and Koa was right up there with him, they obviously had a bunch to do with our success this year."

Whittingham also addressed the Alabama passing game against Utah, or at least an intriguing match-up--Bama's wide receiver Julio Jones vs. Utah cornerback Sean Smith. The Utah coach said, "Julio Jones in my opinion is the best freshman receiver in the country. Great size, six-foot-four, 210 pounds plus, had 51 catches this year and by far their go-to-guy. He's a big physical guy. You watch him catch the ball and the SEC defenders just dripping off him. They can't bring him down. It takes five or six guys to bring him down.

"But you know we have hopefully a pretty good counter answer and that is Sean Smith.  I believe he's the biggest corner in the country, six-foot-three, 218 pounds. He's got great size; at least I haven't seen anybody listed as a bigger guy. He's very physical and to me that is going to be one of the great match-ups on the field, Sean Smith against Julio Jones. He's going to be on him the majority of the time. That's no secret. We put Sean (Smith) on their (Utah's opponents') go-to-guy all throughout the season. So that is a match-up that is intriguing and we've got to try to slow him down. He's a playmaker and like I said, he's got more catches or as many catches as all the other receivers combined, and so the tight end would be number two. Number 88 (Alabama tight end Nick Walker) is a pretty good football player as well.

"But Julio (Jones) in my opinion will be the best receiver in the country in a year or two."

Alabama has the nation's greatest bowl tradition, but it's not quite as inflated as Whittingham had it. In his opening remarks he referred correctly to this being Alabama's 13th Sugar Bowl game (which ties LSU for the most, and Bama has the most victories, eight). But when Whittingham said, "We have a great opponent in Alabama, obviously another program that is steeped in tradition, 70 plus bowl games..."

No, it's not 70. This will be Bama's national record 56th bowl game. The Crimson Tide also has a nation,al record 31 bowl victories (against 21 losses and three ties).

In other remarks, Whittingham said:

"I am excited to be, our football team is excited to be here. What a great venue, the Sugar Bowl, the 75th anniversary, its steeped in tradition. I want to thank the Sugar Bowl Committee that invited us; there are a lot of good football teams that could have been in this situation. We are elated that we are here.

"It just a great opportunity for our players and they deserve it. They've (Utah) played their tails off this season worked hard from way back in spring ball and this is the payoff for a lot of hard work."

"Just the opportunity to be here is tremendous for our guys. I believe they have earned it, in my opinion we represent the non-BCS schools, that's an obvious situation. It's a process. The BCS versus the non-BCS is an ongoing process. If we are able to come out with a win in this game it's obviously a big step in the right direction for the non-BCS schools. Like I said the past few weeks, (Utah) beating Pittsburgh a few years ago, Boise (State) beating Oklahoma, those were two big steps. It was a step backwards when Hawai'i got beat by Georgia. This one game does not make or break anything in that department. It is another phase in the process."

Last year much was made of Hawai'i going against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The result was a 41-10 Georgia victory. Whittingham dismissed any comparison of Hawai'i last year to Utah this year.

"That's a natural comparison or a natural dynamic of the game," he said. "Each game and each matchup has its own unique circumstances. I don't think there is a lot of bearing on this based on what happened last year. Obviously we want to play well, that's the most important thing. We have to go out and play well and be competitive and represent our conference (Mountain West) and the University of Utah. What happened to Hawai'i (last year in the Sugar Bowl) was a situation that we don't feel we are carrying a torch for that game anything like that."

On the importance of the experience of the quarterbacks in this game over numbers

He said, "I think both quarterbacks are invaluable to their teams respectively. 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 (Brian 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. John Parker Wilson (Crimson Tide QB) has done the same thing at Alabama. He hasn't put up great numbers, but he did win 12 ballgames this year and he did a great job of managing the offense. And there's no doubt that having a fifth-year senior quarterback at the helm is a big advantage and we were fortunate to have that this year."

On being respected as a motivator:

"Well you know our guys are  . . . I don't want to say they have a chip on shoulder, but we are excited to be here, like I said.  We don't have aspirations that we should be in the big one or anything.  We are excited about the opportunity that's in front of us.  All you can do is worry about what you can control, that was to play our best football each and every week for 12 straight weeks.  We were able to get to 12-0. You cannot worry about circumstances beyond your control and our guys; we've had that approach since day 1.  We never talked about BCS or any of that type of thing during the course of the season. We just figured if we took care of our business we would get a good opportunity of some sort at the end of the year. And like I said we feel this is a great opportunity for us."

On the impact his dad has had on his coaching career:

"My dad, absolutely, the single greatest impact on my coaching career was Fred Whittingham. My roots in New Orleans go way back.  He was an original Saint, back in '67, '68, part of '69.  So I have a little bit of past here.  I was around nine or ten years old at that point and just watching him play as a NFL football player was  . . . I was in awe. I was in the locker room with all the greats, Doug Atkins, Jimmy Taylor, Billy Kilmer.. So I grew up around football. You know my father was involved after a player as a coach.  He got right into coaching when he finished playing.  I had the great and unique opportunity to play for him.  He was my linebacker coach at Brigham Young University when I was a player there.  Then, we had the equally unique opportunity when we got to Utah.  He got to Utah before I did. I think it was his third year in, I got hired as the defensive line coach, he was the defensive coordinator, and so I had a chance to work with him in that capacity a few years.  He took off for the Raiders.  A few years later I was the coordinator and he was my assistant coach.  So just the opportunities to work with him, work beside him, play for him, it was invaluable to my development as a coach and really everything I do, particularly schematically, is patterned off of things I learned from him and the way he coached, his style of coaching, the way he handled his players.   I can go on and on and on.  The bottom line, he is without a doubt the most influential guy in my life as far as molding my professional style."

On Kicker/PunterLouie Sakoda's value to the team:

"Louis Sakoda is a special guy. I don't know if I've ever been in a situation where the most popular guy on your team is the kicker. That's a very unique situation, not only on the team, but on campus.  He is the man and with good reason. He is a three time special teams players of the year in our conference (MWC).  You mention the value; I really can't put a greater value on a guy. He can pin opponents inside the 10 yard line on a consistent basis, or be virtually automatic from 53 yards in. I mean that is a huge weapon for a football team. And the thing about Louie that is the most impressive, he set the bar high as a freshman and he just kept building on that, and he had a great sophomore year, an even better junior year, and even better senior year, which is very difficult to do.  Usually you have an off year where you don't perform quite as well in one of the years as the other, but he was model of consistency for four years at the University of Utah.  He was a unanimous All-American, which is a first in the history of school. We've had consensus All-Americans, but never a unanimous All-American. Plus, he has been an All-American as a punter and place kicker at different points in his career.  I can't say enough about the kid.  As far as his value to the team off the field, tremendous in the community. Punts the Keys is a concept that he's involved with, it originated in Utah, it is an anti youth drinking and driving campaign and he's heavily involved in that. We have the opportunity as a team to go speak at certain venues, grade schools and so forth and he's always the first guy to volunteer. He has been a tremendous asset to us in a lot of ways. And above all else he's been about a 3.8 (GPA) student. The kid is very special, that's the bottom line."

On not practicing Sunday:

"We don't practice on Sundays all throughout the course of the season. We try to make this as much like game week as possible.  I realize we're a day ahead because it's a Friday game rather than a Saturday game. NCAA football requires us to take one day off a week.  Sunday is the day that we choose during the course of the season.  We had a very physical practice yesterday when we got in town. We'll have a very physical practice tomorrow.  We don't need three very physical days in row at this point in time.  So this is a nice break for us.  We'll take them to the Saints game and let them get away from it. Tomorrow we'll get back into it. Tomorrow will be like our Tuesday according to our game clock in our heads, Tuesday will be a Wednesday and so forth leading up to the Friday game. It just seemed like a good natural break for the guys and again, we've been practicing for a long time now.  We had the 40 or so days between our last ball game and this game. So we tried to make sure to not wear the guys out.  We took a couple weeks off on the front end. So hopefully we'll be fresh on Friday. That's the reason. Just a natural break between two physical practices sandwiched with a day off in between."

On what winning the game means toward national stature:

"The win would be obviously huge. You look at it on a lot of different fronts. I would assume it would put us in the top five at the end of the season if we're able to get a win.  Just continue to build the credibility of the Mountain West Conference, which has had a tremendous year.  We have three teams ranked in the top 25 right now, so it would be another positive step in that direction. Obviously recruiting implications, the more you win the easier it is to recruit, a lot of positives would be attached. Like I said we've got our hands full. It'll be a very competitive game, but if we're able to come away with a win there's three, four or five things that's attached to it that would be very positive for the university." On losing his offensive and defensive coordinators to head coaching job:

"It's good to have your coaches wanted (by other teams), it's good to have your players wanted at the next level. Both our coordinators are going in different directions after the season.

"Gary Anderson, our defensive coordinator, is going to be the next head coach at Utah State, which is a great opportunity for him.  This is a long time coming.  I mean we've been fortunate to hang on to Gary as long as we have. He is no doubt in my mind going to be a successful head coach. It's an opportunity for him to get his own program and is a situation that is very exciting to him. It's a challenge and we support him 100 percent.

"Andy Lubbock, our offensive coordinator, that's no surprise. Andy's received calls after each and every season. He had offers, Pac 10 offers, but he wanted to stay and see this thing through and when I say see it through I mean see us to get to the top of the league. Make a run at a championship which we were able to accomplish this year. The financial package that Kansas State is offering is very attractive to him and his family, obviously.

"So we're going to replace Andy shortly after the bowl game. My focal point is getting that situation rectified.  We already named our defensive coordinator, Kilani Sitake, who has been on our staff since I took over, fourth year now, linebacker coach, so he'll take over on defense.

"That's a healthy sign, us having success; people want a part of that. The University of Utah is a great place to work, don't get me wrong.  Before these two departures we lost only two coaches in four years which is a pretty good run. It speaks to the attractiveness of working at the University of Utah. But these two opportunities were too good for these guys to pass up."

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