Sugar Turns Sour As Utes Rout Tide
Alabama fell behind Utah by three touchdowns in the first quarter and could never overcome that chasm as the Utes of the Mountain West Conference completed an undefeated season with a 31-17 upset of Bama in the 75th annual Sugar Bowl Friday night in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
It was not a fluke. Utah outplayed Alabama in every aspect. While Utah moved to 13-0 and a possible final five spot in the national rankings, Bama lost the final two games of an otherwise extraordinary season. The Crimson Tide finished at 12-2.
There was talk before the game that the pressure was on Alabama, a no-win situation. Win and it's "Well, it was Utah." Lose and it's "Utah!"
There was pressure all right. It came against John Parker Wilson. Alabama's quarterback was sacked on Alabama's first possession, forcing a punt and Utah went on a quick scoring drive. Wilson was pressured again on the Tide's second possession and this time through an interception that resulted in a short drive for a touchdown. Utah had a 14-0 lead before the halfway mark of the first quarter.
Utah's defensive pressure was relentless and Alabama's offensive front was somewhat makeshift. Along with the much publicized suspension of starting left tackle Andre Smith, Alabama lost his replacement, Mike Johnson, early in the game. Johnson suffered an ankle injury. Wilson was sacked four times in the first half and also had to scramble three times. By game's end he would have been sacked eight times.
One of the stock phrases of television commentators assessing a game is that a team needs to "start fast." Duh.
Utah started fast. The Utes got big plays early, on defense, on special teams, and on offense. The defensive plays were sacks of Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson and the big interception. The first big play on special teams came when Utah fumbled a punt, but managed to retain possession. And there were too many big offensive plays to count as the utes dominated the first quarter:
In points, it was 21-0. In first downs, 9-4. In yards, 150-43.
Utah had two five-play drives for touchdowns to take a 14-0 lead. The first was a 68-yard drive that ended with Brent Casteel taking a seven-yard pass from quarterback Brian Johnson. Louie Sakoda kicked the extra point. The second, following the interception of Wilson by Robert Johnson, went 32 yards and ended with running back Matt Asiata taking a direct snap and going in from two yards out. The big play in that drive was a third-and10 30-yard completion from Brian Johnson to David Reed over Bama's Marquis Johnson at the Alabama two.
Alabama had it perfect to get back in the game when Nikita Stover broke wide open in the middle, but Wilson overthrew him. Nothing came of the possession and Alabama punted to Utah.
The Utes took seven plays to score this time. Johnson connected with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Bradon Godfrey, who beat freshman safety Mark Barron. Utah had gone 65 yards in 1:57 to take a 21-0 lead.
That drive of 1:57 was the one that took the longest of the Utes' three first half touchdowns. Utah's touchdown drives had amounted to 1:19 on the first touchdown and 1:37 on the second.
Alabama seemed to be poised to make some noise when the Tide, primarily on running plays from Glen Coffee, drove to a first down at the Utah 27, but two illegal motion calls against tight end Nick Walker and another sack of Wilson made it fourth and long as the first quarter ended.
On the first play of the second quarter, Leigh Tiffin put Alabama on the scoreboard with a 52-yard field goal.
Although that drive produced points, too often when Alabama had to have a play to have a chance to win, the Crimson Tide was lacking.
Alabama's defense finally held Utah on the Utes' next possession, and Alabama's offense was moving behind the running of back-up tailback Mark Ingram. But Wilson was sacked again and then missed on a pass and Tiffin was called on for a 49-yard field goal try, which missed left.
Javier Arenas has some nice kickoff returns early in the game. He was getting plenty of practice. And when he caught a Utah punt at the Alabama 27 he showed his stuff. Arenas got by the Utah gunners, then broke a tackle and was in the clear. He went 73 yards for the touchdown. Tiffin kicked Bama to with shouting distance at 21-10.
Alabama's furious try to get points just before halftime came up short when Wilson couldn't find open receivers. And it proved to be potentially disastrous when wide receiver Marquis Maze was flagged for a personal foul on the final play of the half. That 15-yard penalty was assessed on Bama's kickoff to start the second half, meaning Tiffin kicked off from the 15.
Alabama did look a little more competitive on paper. Bama had outscored the Utes 10-0 in the second quarter. Bama had pulled to within two on first downs, 12 for Utah, 10 for Alabama. And the Crimson Tide had added over 100 yards of second quarter offense while holding Utah to 50 second quarter yards.
Tiffin's kickoff from the 15 resulted in great field position for the Utes, starting at the Utah 45. But as sometimes happens, luck can have a sudden change.
Don't'a Hightower got to Utah's quarterback forcing a fumble and it was recovered by Bobby Greenwood at the Utah 30.
It took Alabama only seven plays to get the touchdown. Wilson started the drive with a six-yard completion to Julio Jones, got a first down run from Coffee, hit tight end Nick Walker on a 12-yard pass for first and goal at the seven, and on second and goal completed a pass to Coffee to cut the lead to Utah 21, Alabama 17. There was 11:41 remaining in the third quarter.
Utah answered the challenge, in part because of missed tackles by Bama cornerback Kareem Jackson. Jackson missed a tackle on a 33-yard gain on a pass from Johnson to Freddie Brown and also missed a tackle on a third-and-10 play from the Bama that allowed Johnson's pass to David Reed to go for a touchdown and put the Utes back up by the 11-point margin at 28-17.
Bama came back with a nice drive, helped by a pass interference call against Utah, but the effort ended at the Utes' 32 with a missed field goal. The drive was stopped when Ingram was stuffed on a 3-2 run, forcing the 49-yard field goal try.
Alabama's final reasonable gasp ended with yet another sack of Wilson and a fumble, giving the ball over to the Utes with 5:13 to play. And then Utah toyed with the Alabama defense in adding a rub-it-in-your-face 28-yard field goal with 2:49 to play to make it 31-17. Bama would have one more Hail Mary that was intercepted and the Utes ran out the clock.
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