Behind Johnson, Utah busted the BCS like no mid-major before (cont.)
Utah brought both the kit and the kaboodle before many of the fans could even get comfortable.
The Utes jumped out to a 21-0 lead by utilizing the same no-huddle it opened with against BYU. On Utah's first drive, Johnson led a five-play, 68-yard march in 1:19, picking apart the Tide with an array of intermediate passes, capped with a seven-yard scoring strike to Brent Casteel.
After a two-yard Matt Asiata touchdown run and an 18-yard TD pass from Johnson to Bradon Godfrey, both coming on drives of less than two minutes, a sense of bewilderment had swept across the pro-Alabama crowd. The nation's third-ranked defense had already given up as many points through one quarter as it had in 10 games this season. A team that had outscored opponents 130-30 in the first quarter was held scoreless for the first time.
"We came out in no-huddle and I think we surprised them," said wide receiver Freddie Brown. "We wanted to start fast and we did."
While the usually stout defense struggled as if it were a man down, so too did an offense that really was. With left tackle Andre Smith suspended by the school (reportedly for contact with an agent), Utah feasted on his replacements.
Left guard Mike Johnson started in Smith's place and on the fifth play of the game, Stevenson Sylvester beat him for a seven-yard sack of John Parker Wilson. Three plays after Johnson limped off the field with an ankle injury, Kepa Gaison beat Johnson's replacement, Drew Davis, for another seven-yard sack. In all, the Tide sacked Wilson eight times (three by Sylvester) and forced him to commit three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble). And 'Bama's running game, which had piled up 196.4 yards per game entering the Sugar Bowl, was held to 31 yards on 33 attempts.
"We knew we were going to have to put eight to nine [guys] in the box," Whittingham said. "We had an assortment of blitzes we wanted to use and the guys executed them very well."
The Tide had outscored opponents 246-54 in the first half and the only time they had been down at halftime all season was a three-point deficit to Florida in the SEC Championship Game. A 52-yard Leigh Tiffin field goal and Javier Arenas' 73-yard punt return for a touchdown saved 'Bama from its first scoreless first half.
Alabama seemed poised to end Utah's Cinderella story at the start of the second half. On the Utes' opening drive, Johnson fumbled at Utah's 35 and the Tide quickly cashed in with a four-yard TD pass from Wilson to Glen Coffee, cutting the Utes' lead to 21-17. But Utah immediately responded with another sub-two-minute drive, going 71 yards in seven plays ending with a 28-yard TD pass from Johnson to David Reed.
The Tide never really threatened the rest of the way, failing to drive deeper than the Utah 32. Three of their last four possessions ended with them turning the ball over (missed field goal, fumble, interception).
It's a loss that puts a major damper on what has been a surprising turnaround in Tuscaloosa. 'Bama was seen as being a year (or even two) ahead of schedule. Saban led a remarkable turnaround in his second season, putting a preseason No. 24 into the SEC title game and its first BCS game since 1999. But the Tide's biggest wins (Clemson, Georgia and LSU) lost their luster along the way and now they've ended the season on a two-game losing streak that leaves this team looking far more like a team still rebuilding than a title contender.
Whittingham knows of rebuilding. Four years after Urban Meyer led the Utes to a BCS win and an undefeated season, Whittingham rebuilt Utah behind Johnson, a fifth-year senior, who has bounced back from a serious knee injury that forced him to take a medical redshirt in '06.
"Johnson has meant everything to this football team," Whittingham said. "He is our team leader. That was never in question."
As time expired, Johnson ran down the Utah sideline holding out the ball. Instantly swarmed by a group of reporters, he forgot to remove his helmet as television cameras angled for a shot. Eventually, a Sugar Bowl representative stepped in and removed it for him.
The moment, four years later, was his.
"This is the best," he said. "We're the best team in the country."