TEMPE Overshadowed all season by an electrifying offense that was one of the best in collegiate football, the Utah defense came up big in a bowl game for the second straight year.
Except for a spectacular catch on a long touchdown pass late in the third quarter, Pittsburgh was kept out of the end zone by a Ute defense that kept Panther quarterback Tyler Palko on the run all game long.
For the night, the Utes registered nine sacks, a Fiesta Bowl record, a season high and the third most in school history.
"Our front has been strong all year long, and we've won the line of scrimmage battle virtually every game this year," said Kyle Whittingham, the new Ute coach and defensive coordinator for the past 10 years. "We got off the bus blitzing and ended up with eight or nine sacks. I cannot give enough credit to our defensive personnel. They executed the game plan flawlessly, and it was a great way to finish the season."
The Ute defense extended its scoreless streak in bowl games to seven quarters by shutting out the Panthers in the first half. Last year they shut out Southern Miss 17-0, and in their bowl appearance prior to that, they shut out Southern Cal in the final quarter of the Las Vegas Bowl.
It took a brilliant catch by Greg Lee to put the Panthers on the scoreboard with 4:28 left in the third quarter.
In their 11 previous games the Utes had 24 sacks, an average of a little more than two per game. But Saturday night the Utes came up with nine sacks against the Panthers, to break the Fiesta Bowl record of seven set in 1996.
The Utes had four sacks in the first half alone, by four different players. Marques Ledbetter sacked Palko for a 2-yard loss on Pitt's first series and early in the second quarter, Eric Weddle caught Palko for a 3-yard loss.
On the next play, Ledbetter caught the Pitt quarterback for an 11-yard loss, and late in the half, Jonathan Fanene dropped Palko for a 13-yard loss.
On Pittsburgh's first series of the third quarter, Steve Fifita sacked Palko for a 12-yard loss.
Later Tommy Hackenbruck registered a 12-yard sack and in the fourth quarter Hackenbruck teamed with Corey Dodds for a 7-yard sack on third down. Later Spencer Toone and Reza Williams combined for a sack and then Hackebnbruck and Morgan Scalley teamed for a sack on Pitt's final offensive play of the game.
"We wanted to come after them, especially after the first couple of series," said defensive line coach Gary Andersen. "We started coming clean, so we just dialed them up and kept coming after them and it worked."
For the game, the Panthers finished with 17 net yards rushing, thanks to the 74 yards lost in sacks.
In the Utes' last four bowl wins, including Saturday night, they've allowed just (29) points. Last year the Utes shut out Southern Mississippi; in 2001 they beat Southern Cal 10-6; and in 1999 the Utes beat Fresno State 17-16."They get overshadowed by our offense, but tonight the defense got it done and only gave up seven points," said Ute quarterback Alex Smith.