By RALPH MANCINI
January 2, 2009 * 8:00 PM * FOX
The Utes and the Crimson Tide lock horns on Friday, Jan.2 in a battle that pits Utah’s prolific offense against Nick Saban’s powerhouse defense. It is a Tide defense which routinely keeps opponents’ yardage to a minimum and creates game-changing plays. On offense, Alabama will try to establish its punishing running attack with a road-grating offensive line which opens gaping holes for the two-headed rushing tandem, either of whom can take it the distance. Gaining yards versus a stingy, run-stuffing Utah defense, however, will be no easy chore. The undefeated Utes own the longest winning streak in the nation at 13 games. Both Utah and Alabama were tied at 13 before the Tide’s Dec. 6 loss to Florida. Utah also holds the distinction of being the first Bowl Championship Series buster in 2004 by beating Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.
When the Utes Have the Ball
The Utes ran roughshod over their Mountain West Conference schedule thanks in large part to their senior quarterback Brian Johnson. The Texas native isn’t your classic pocket passer, but he’s a clutch performer who can make plays with both his arm and legs. The shoulder injury he suffered last season has turned him into less of a runner but his ability to make game-winning throws in the fourth quarter has been a big factor in his team’s recent success. Johnson often has a plethora of options to throw to due to Utah’s frequent use of four- and five-receiver sets. One receiver who’s clearly emerged as Johnson’s go-to target is Freddie Brown. The 6’3” senior is an acrobatic performer, who’s really come on after three quiet seasons with the Utes. Brown leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. Wide out Brent Casteel is another weapon that puts defenses on their heels. His strength, instincts and explosive running skills make this Bay Area product a real San Francisco treat. The running back duo of Matt Asiata and Darrell Mack is also a force to be reckoned with as evidenced by their combined 4.7 yards-per-carry average. The 235 lb. Asiata is a load who excels at running downhill and bowling over defenders. The junior back isn’t as effective when forced to run horizontally. Mack is a dangerous runner in his own right, but has seen a decrease in carries after last year’s 1,000-yard season. The unselfish Mack has even proved to be a strong blocker for Asiata when called upon. The most vulnerable part of this offense is the offensive line, which doesn’t move defenders off the ball in the running game and also has some holes in its pass protection. Left tackle Zane Beadles is the line’s most athletic component, while right guard Robert Conley is both physically powerful and consistent. Expect Alabama to bring the blitz in an effort to disrupt Johnson’s timing and making him throw early. Louie Sakoda is the first Ute to win first-team All-America honors as a kicker and punter.
The Crimson Tide’s fourth-ranked run defense will pose an almost impossible challenge for Utah’s running attack. Opposing teams have averaged a meager 78.8 rushing yards per game against Alabama’s brick-wall unit, which features larger-than-life nose tackle Terrence Cody. The 385-lb. colossus often fights off double and triple-teams with ease on his way to dropping helpless ball carriers for a loss. The smaller Josh Chapman has filled in admirably for Cody during the year by maintaining a solid base versus the run when needed. The 6’5” Bobby Greenwood is also beast against the run, as well as being a standout special teams player that can block field goals. Fellow 3-4 end Brandon Deadrick is cut from the same mold. Neither Deadrick nor Greenwood are asked or expected to post gaudy sack numbers. Outside linebackers Cory Reamer and Brandon Fanney will often spread out to create a 5-man front line, which opens up lanes for middle linebacker Renaldo McClain and weakside linebacker Don’ta Hightower. The ability to take on lead blocks and still tackle his adversaries makes the 6’4” McClain a force of nature. This former tight end is versatile enough to read offenses and call plays from his traditional position. In addition, he can also provide some heat as an outside pass rusher. Free safety Rashad Johnson is a lethal weapon in the secondary, who flashes remarkable anticipatory skills that allow him to break on the ball early. The intimidating senior is one of the best open-field tacklers at the collegiate level. Cornerback Javier Arenas has outstanding speed and rarely gets beaten deep. Arenas’ return skills are second-to-none.
When the Tide Has the Ball
Alabama’s ground game is a big red machine that simply pummels teams to death behind a veteran line that will be without big nasty left tackle Andre Smith, the leader of this group. Center Antoine Caldwell is a punishing run blocker, who’ll run great distances when clearing the way for his runners downfield. Right tackle Drew Davis has also come into his own this season as an overpowering battering ram. Running backs Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram do an excellent job of taking advantage of the sizable holes before them. In addition to averaging over five yards per carry apiece, Coffee and Ingram have each scored over 10 rushing touchdowns. Coffee, in particular, is a master at setting up his blocks and turning on the jets with his breathtaking burst, which enables the fleet-footed Floridian to author numerous game-breaking runs of 40 yards or more. Ingram, on the other hand, has shown toughness with his willingness to pound the ball inside, but is also quick and shifty enough to break it to the outside. Ingram’s perpetual motion makes him a handful to contain. Over at quarterback, John Parker Wilson will never strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses with his ordinary arm, but he’s very capable of moving his team when given enough time to throw. Wilson can often be seen playing catch with rookie receiver Julio Jones. The physical wide out has come storming out of the gates in his first season, setting Alabama rookie records for receptions (51), receiving yards (847) and touchdown catches (4). The 6’4” Jones is just as adept at making tough catches in traffic as he is gaining separation from tight coverage. Marquis Maze is an explosive and versatile red-shirt freshman, while Nick Walker is Parker’s reliable safety valve at tight end.
Utah’s defense has made a living creating turnovers and converting them into big plays. This unit is difficult to penetrate by running to the perimeter due to its speed. Without having to deal with the likes of Smith, defensive end Paul Kruger could very well have an impact in the outcome of this year’s Sugar Bowl. Much like Freddy of Nightmare on Elm Street fame, Kruger has been a haunting presence for quarterbacks all season with his uncanny speed off the edge, athleticism and non-stop motor. The former quarterback registered 7.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss during his sophomore campaign. The other defensive end, Koa Misi, similarly pressures quarterbacks off the edge with great tenacity. Stevenson Sylvester is the one shining star among a linebacking corps that isn’t particularly big or fast. The roving 'backer sets the tone with his bone-crunching hits and inspirational vocal leadership. The 224-lb. play-maker can take over a game by racking up tackles from sideline to sideline. Sylvester will have his hands full versus Alabama as Nick Saban’s bunch will surely try to soften the Utes up the middle. The return of nose tackle Kenape Eliapo, who missed seven games due to a broken foot, may help shore up his squad’s overmatched run defense. Utah’s secondary brings a lot to the table in terms of size and speed along with their tendency to get into receivers' faces. King-sized cornerback Sean Smith is the unquestioned ballhawk of the defensive backfield with five interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown. Free safety Deshawn Richard also chipped in by converting two of his three picks into scores.
The Tide’s firepower in the trenches will be too much for Utah to stop over the course of four quarters. The Utes are good enough to keep this contest close for a half…maybe. Look for Alabama’s size and talent to eventually cause the dam to break. Whatever the outcome, coach Kyle Whittingham should be commended for continuing to run the spread offense like a well-oiled machine and instilling his Utes with a never-say-die attitude.
Final score: Alabama 34 Utah 14
Photo Credit: SEC Sports Media, College Press Box
Friday, January 2, 2009
By RALPH MANCINI