Undefeated, Unchallenged: Storybook season ends with big victory
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
TEMPE, Ariz. Utah's quest for perfection is complete.
Saturday's 35-7 win over Pittsburgh in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl capped a 12-0 season for the Utes, who made quite a splash in their Bowl Championship Series debut.
"In today's day and age of college football going undefeated is hard to do. There's a lot of great teams out there," said head coach Urban Meyer, who finished his two-year stint at Utah with a 22-2 record. "It's hard to say goodbye, but I'm saying goodbye 12-0. What a great effort by our guys. This is the best group I've ever been around."
Utah quarterback Alex Smith and wide receiver Paris Warren were named co-Offensive Players of the Game and nose guard Steve Fifita claimed defensive honors.
"It wasn't an easy game," said Warren. "We just executed well in all three phases."
The offense shined with 467 yards and 25 first downs. Smith completed 29-of-37 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns. Warren scored twice and caught a Fiesta Bowl-record 15 catches.
Defensively, the Utes racked up nine sacks while limiting the Panthers to just 268 yards. Eric Weddle led the way with a game-high 11 tackles and Tommy Hackenbruck had three sacks.
"We blitzed them a lot. We gave them a lot of different looks," said Fifita. "I don't know how to explain the pressure we got. We just saw openings and took advantage of them."
Besides a convincing performance on the field, they also did well in the stands. A vast majority of the sellout crowd of 73,519 at Sun Devil Stadium wore red in support of the BCS busters. Utah is the first team from a conference without an automatic bid to participate in one of the system's financially lucrative bowl games the expected payout is between $14-17 million.
Smith said the victory sent a message to the establishment.
"Hopefully that college football needs a few changes," he said. "That's been the mind set all along."
Utah received the Fiesta Bowl championship trophy in a postgame ceremony on the field. Amidst the celebration, the large contingent of Ute fans chanted "undefeated" to the team and "one more year" to Smith, who is contemplating a jump to the NFL and its riches.
The Utes cashed in early and often against the Panthers. They built a 28-0 lead midway through the third quarter while cruising to their school record-tying 16th consecutive victory. The streak equals a mark established in 1930, the last time a Utah team went unbeaten or untied.
Warren scored twice down the stretch to give the Utes a pair of 28-point leads. Less than six minutes after hauling in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Smith, Warren took a hook-and-ladder pass from teammate Steve Savoy for another score.
Between touchdowns, Pitt scored its first points of the game on a 31-yard pass from Tyler Palko to Greg Lee.
The Panthers (8-4), however, were never in contention after a sluggish start. Their problems were compounded by Marty Johnson's 18-yard touchdown run on the Utes' first series in the second half.
Utah continued a season-long streak of leading at halftime by holding a 14-0 advantage. The Utes scored touchdowns on two of their first three possessions to pull away from the Panthers. The first score came late in the first quarter when Quinton Ganther reached the end zone on a 4-yard touchdown run. The second came on a 6-yard scoring strike from Smith to John Madsen with 5:29 remaining in the half.
Defense and special teams also made contributions. The Utes recorded four quarterback sacks over the first and second quarters while holding Pitt scoreless. The Panthers attempted a 48-yard field goal between Utah touchdowns, but it was blocked by freshman Martail Burnett.
"We obviously ran into an excellent football team. I think in the physical parts of the game we did not match up," said Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris. "We had trouble on offense protecting our passer. On defense, you know, I think they put the pressure on people all year long and that's why they score big."
The fifth-ranked Utes have now won four consecutive bowl games. The streak includes the Las Vegas Bowl in 1999 and 2001 as well as the 2003 Liberty Bowl. The last two victories came under Meyer, who officially turned over control of the program to long-time defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham."It's a fairy-tale season and I'm just excited to move forward and continue this program heading in the direction that it's at," said Whittingham.
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