Utah’s Plan Comes Together in 2009 Allstate Sugar Bowl
Seldom has a game-plan been executed so perfectly.
“Our plan was to get on top early,” said Utah defensive back Sean Smith after the Utes stunned Alabama 31-17 in the 75th Sugar Bowl, “and keep them down.”
[Story By Marty Mulé]
And, in a battle between the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide, with all its illustrious history and tradition in the Southeastern Conference, and seventh-ranked Utes, the undefeated little guys from the lightly regarded Mountain West Conference, that’s exactly what Utah did.
On its first possession of the night, Utah, a 9 ½ point underdog, drove 68 yards for a touchdown, quarterback Brian Johnson hitting wide-out Brent Casteel seven yards out. One series later, after an interception by Robert Johnson, the Utes went 32 yards with Matt Asiata going in from the two. Then, after a seven-play 65-yard drive, Bradon Godfrey took in an 18-yard pass for another touchdown.
Utah scored three touchdowns and gained 150 yards of offense in a possession time of 4:53 of the first quarter; Alabama had the ball for 10:07 and mustered a total of 43 yards.
“We smacked them in the mouth early and took their fans out of the game,” Casteel said. “They probably didn’t know what hit them.”
The game was over then, Smith thought. Alabama, unbeaten in 12 games during the regular season before losing to Florida in the SEC Championship Game, was a team with short-comings. “I expected us to get a big start,” he said. “Florida showed us what the spread (offense) could do to Alabama, and we (also) knew it would be tough to run the ball on them.”
So Utah used its spread on offense and determined on defense to force Bama to throw. “When I saw them on film,” Smith continued, “all I saw was a running game, and you can’t come back with a running game.”
Things were a bit harder on the Tide because All-American offensive tackle Andre Smith had been sent home due to rules violations. But nobody in attendance had the feeling that the absence of one man would make much difference against the revved-up Utes.
Still, the Tide climbed back into hailing distance. On the first play of the second quarter, Leigh Tiffin kicked a 52-yard field goal. Then, after holding the Utes, Javier Arenas returned a Utah punt 73 yards for a touchdown, and suddenly the Tide had a pulse, behind just 21-10.
“We hate for something like that to happen,” Casteel said, “but he did a great job of fielding the punt and (then) making a play.”
Things tightened more in the third period when Johnson was sacked and fumbled, and Bobby Greenwood recovered for Bama at the Utah 30. Glen Coffee eventually took a four-yard pass from John Parker Wilson for a touchdown that narrowed the score to 21-17.
Practically everyone in the Louisiana Superdome – except for the band of the white-shirted Utes on the field – was envisioning a dramatic Crimson Tide comeback.
Johnson responded with a 71-yard scoring drive, ending with a 28-yard touchdown pass to David Reed.
After a closing 28-yard field goal by Louie Sakoda, the Utes sealed a convincing victory, their second in a BCS bowl in five years, and the biggest upset in the three-quarters of a century old Sugar Bowl.
And the outcome rested not only on Johnson (called by Bama coach Nick Saban “the best quarterback we faced this year” – heady praise considering the Tide had just played against Florida’s Tim Tebow) but also on a stout defense Alabama couldn’t dent. The Tide gained just 31 yards rushing, endured eight sacks, and had a total output of 208 yards.
There was talk that Tide coach Nick Saban’s comment after the SEC Championship Game, that his team was the only one that went undefeated in “a real BCS conference,” threw gas on the already fiery emotions of the Utes. “I apologize if anyone was offended by that,” a shell-shocked Saban said after the Sugar Bowl. “I certainly misstated that. If that’s what gave them their intensity, then I guess I’m responsible for the way they played and I’m responsible for the way we played . . . So I’m responsible for the whole kit-and-kaboodel.”
Not entirely. Brian Johnson, the Sugar Bowl MVP after throwing for 336 yards and three touchdowns – put the outcome in perspective.
“We set the tone,” Johnson said, “and that was huge.”
Marty Mulé is an award-winning sportswriter who covered college football and the Sugar Bowl for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for 33 years.