New Orleans — Undefeated, and uninvited.
Led by Brian Johnson and a swarming defense, No. 7 Utah completed its perfect season by upsetting fourth-ranked Alabama, 31-17, in the Sugar Bowl on Friday night.
After piling up wins in the Mountain West Conference against a schedule deemed soft, the Utes (13-0) were left out of the BCS national championship game in favor of perennial powers Florida and Oklahoma, even though both have one loss.
But at the Sugar Bowl, Utah showed it could do more than just hang with the big boys, it could dominate one of them.
“I know where I’m voting us. I’m voting us No. 1. End of story,” coach Kyle Whittingham said afterward.
Utah’s only chance for a piece of the national title — albeit a remote possibility — is in The Associated Press poll. The AP, not part of the BCS, awards its own national champion.
The Utes are the only team in the AP Top 25 that remains unbeaten.
“What else do we have to prove?” said Johnson, selected the game’s most outstanding player. “Without question, we’re one of (the) best, if not the best team in the country.”
Johnson threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns, and the Utes took charge from the start by bolting to a stunning, 21-point lead.
With the victory, Utah became the first team from a non-BCS conference to win two BCS bowls. The Utes beat Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl under coach Urban Meyer, going for his second BCS national title with Florida when his Gators play Oklahoma on Thursday in Miami.
Johnson’s pinpoint passing led Utah to a 21-0 first-quarter lead and the Utes refused to wilt when Alabama pulled to 21-17 early in the second half.
Utah’s defense was equally impressive, intercepting John Parker Wilson twice and sacking him eight times, with the seventh sack forcing a fumble that sent crimson-clad Alabama fans streaming for the exits with just more than five minutes to go.
After surging to No. 1 in the rankings with a 12-0 regular season, Alabama closed the season with two consecutive losses, the first against Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Following that first loss, Saban noted that his club still was the only team to have an undefeated regular season in a “real BCS conference.”
The comment wasn’t aimed specifically at the Utes, but it clearly motivated them.
“From my perspective, I was angry, not just because of what Saban said but everything that was out there,” Johnson said. “I just felt like we were being completely disrespected.”
Johnson and the rest of the Utes played with an angry edge, much to Saban’s chagrin.
“I apologize if anybody was offended by that. We had a tremendous amount of respect for Utah,” Saban said. “I certainly misstated that. ... So if that’s what gave them all their intensity, then I guess I’m responsible for the way they played and I’m responsible for the way we played.”
Alabama could have used suspended All-America left tackle Andre Smith, but even he might not have been enough to stop a Utah defense that played with speed, ferocity and discipline.
The Utes’ front seven was significantly outweighed by Alabama’s offensive line, but refused to give ground to the Tide’s normally powerful running game that averaged 196.5 yards per game coming into the Sugar Bowl. Glen Coffee was held to 36 yards on 13 carries, while Mark Ingram rushed eight times for only 26 yards.
The Utes’ array of stunts and blitzes appeared to upset Wilson’s rhythm. He overthrew a couple of open receivers downfield and finished 18-of-30 for 177 yards and a touchdown
Utah didn’t seem very interested in running the ball, and who could blame them the way Johnson adeptly spread the ball around to seven receivers? He hit Freddie Brown 12 times for 125 yards.
Johnson was 27-of-41 and was not intercepted. His touchdowns went for seven yards to Brent Casteel, 18 yards to Bradon Godfrey and 28 yards to David Reed. Matt Asiata ran for a two-yard TD, a score set up by Reed’s leaping catch at the 2-yardline.
An Alabama comeback appeared to be building early in the second half, when Dont’a Hightower stripped Johnson and Bobby Greenwood recovered at the Utah 30. Wilson methodically drove the Tide for a score, hitting Coffee for an easy 4-yard score on a rollout to close the gap to 21-17.
At the point, Alabama had scored 17 straight points, and it appeared to be only a matter of time before the Tide, favored by more than a touchdown, would overtake the underdog Utes.
Johnson had other ideas, opening Utah’s next drive with a 33-yard pass over the middle to Brown. The completion kick-started a 71-yard scoring drive that ended with Reed’s touchdown.
The Tide drove right back into Utah territory, but Ingram was stuffed for no gain on third-and-2 from the Utah 32. Leigh Tiffen then missed his second long field goal of the game, hooking a 49-yarder just left of the upright.
Only a year ago, the Sugar Bowl saw its first BCS buster in Hawaii, which took a 41-10 beating from Georgia.
Utah calmly dismissed any comparisons to last year’s game during the lead-up to the game, and wasted no time proving it on the field.