January 02, 2009
Utah 31, Alabama 17. Say what you will about its relative talent, or lack thereof, but this much is certain about Utah: That team was prepared. Out of the gate, the defense had Alabama's head spinning with its presnap shifts, creating four sacks, a couple false start penalties and an interception in the first half. Meanwhile, the offense's opening, no-huddle touchdown drive was a Walshian masterwork, a perfect, crisp homage to the script in five rapid-fire snaps, and probably the most impressive start of the season in terms of marrying plan and execution. Utah knew exactly what it wanted to do, and did it confidently before Alabama knew where it was on either side of the ball.
The Utes also proved resilient, answering a turnover and quick Alabama score to cut the lead to four at the start of the second half with a 72-yard touchdown drive that ground the Tide's momentum to a halt, and surprisingly physical -- not in the between-the-tackles game I thought Alabama would win before the game (though Utah held up fine in that regard), but in making and especially breaking tackles, fighting for extra yards and winning those split-second tugs-of-war at the sticks that make the difference in first down and third or fourth. How on earth has a receiver as big, physical and clutch as Freddie Brown escaped my attention his entire career? (I'm not alone: It seems he's escaped the scouts' attention as well, despite his size and good senior numbers. I blame CBS College Sports.)The Utes equaled Florida for most points scored on Bama all season, and Brian Johnson was at least as impressive in this victory as Tim Tebow was in his.
Defensively, there were a lot of free pass rushers, and the Tide never settled down to run the ball effectively enough to get John Parker Wilson in his comfort zone in the play-action passing game. When Wilson tried to set up on the waggles he loves so much, he almost always had a Ute lineman or linebacker in his face. Alabama scored on a punt return and a short field after the Utes' only turnover -- and a freak turnover at that as the ball squirted out of Johnson's hands for no apparent reason. Even after its dominant opening thrust, Utah was just flatly good.
So: What we have here is a 13-0 team with the heads of four other ranked teams on its wall, the most recent of which was a top-five team that got pantsed on national television as a 10-point favorite. There's no difference in what Utah did to Alabama and what LSU did to Ohio State in a 14-point pounding in the Superdome last year; if the exact performances tonight were reversed, and Alabama raced out to a 21-point lead in the first 10 minutes while sacking the opposing quarterback eight times in an eventual double-digit win, the meme would be "SEC speed strikes again." I don't expect anyone to launch any similar raves about Utah's dominance, despite Paul Kruger and Stevenson Sylvester's repeated abuse of the Tide's rotating left tackle situation in the wake of Andre Smith's suspension. But how, exactly, the only undefeated team in the country will be written off under the circumstances is the mystery.
Appreciate the irony here, please. By providing the the ratings-challenged BCS its most thrilling game in two years, Utah also dealt another severe blow to the Series' fundamental conceit: Again, the two-team playoff is a failure. USC proved its failure by running Penn State out of the Rose Bowl, and even the Fox announcers wouldn't dare bring up the notion of a split championship, I'll say the same thing about the Utes I said Thursday about the Trojans: I'm not willing to say Utah deserves to be the national champion. But I defy anyone who watched the Utes methodically whittle a top-10 opponent into frustration to honestly argue that they don't deserve a shot.