It'll go down as the most successful season in University of Utah football history — a school-record 13 wins, a 31-17 victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome and a No. 2 national ranking.
The Utes, who received 16 first-place votes in the final AP top 25 poll, concluded the campaign as the only unbeaten team in the country with the nation's longest active streaks in terms of overall wins (14) and bowl victories (8).
And there's more an outright Mountain West Conference title and a second trip in five years to the exclusive Bowl Championship Series.
Individual accolades include All-American recognition for kicker/punter Louie Sakoda, who also picked up his third MWC Special Teams Player of the Year award; Brian Johnson as the league's Offensive Player of the Year; and Kyle Whittingham as the top coach.
"It's been a storybook season," Whittingham said after the Sugar Bowl.
The story a successful quest for perfection, if you will had 13 distinct chapters.
A look back at how Utah made headlines:
Game 1: Aug. 30
Rocking the Big House
Utah 25, Michigan 23
Michigan Stadium (108,421)
ANN ARBOR, Mich. For the better part of three quarters, Utah made itself at home in the Big House. The Utes held a 25-10 lead with less than nine minutes remaining.
That's when Michigan made things uncomfortable for their guests.
The Wolverines climbed back into contention by blocking a punt and recovering a fumble. Both turnovers led to a pair of touchdowns for Michigan. A failed 2-point conversion attempt on the second score proved to be the difference in the season opener for both teams.
"I'm very proud of our guys and the way they hung in there," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "This house got rocking."
The Utes, however, responded to the adversity.
"It was gut-check time," Whittingham said. "And we had to have some guys step up."
Knocking off the 24th-ranked team in the coaches poll on the road left the Utes in a festive mood.
"Words can't explain how I feel right now," cornerback Sean Smith said as he walked off the field. "The defense came out clicking and the offense was clicking. It was great to come out and get a win in the Big House."
The Utes inflicted most of their damage in the first half, holding a commanding 313-102 advantage in total offense yardage.
Contributions were plentiful.
Quarterback Brian Johnson led the way with 305 yards passing, 253 in the first half.
Louie Sakoda tied a school record by making four field goals. When things got tight down the stretch, the All-American had a 50-yard punt that wasn't returned to bury Michigan deep in its own territory.
Whittingham said another key was the play of the offensive line against the Wolverines' experienced defensive front.
"To me that was the most critical match-up in the game," he explained. "I think our guys held their own."
Game 2: Sept. 6
Utah 42, UNLV 21
Rice-Eccles Stadium (45,587)
SALT LAKE CITY It took a little while for Utah to warm up, but when the 22nd-ranked Utes did they pulled away and avenged last season's loss to UNLV.
The Utes did most of their damage in the second half after playing to standstill over the first two quarters. They returned from the break with renewed vigor.
"We challenged them a little bit at halftime, and the bottom line was in the second half the tougher, more physical team that wanted it more was going to win," Whittingham said. "That's what I told them at halftime and they responded."
It didn't take long.
David Reed, the highly touted junior college transfer, ignited the Utes by returning the second-half kickoff 49 yards. Five plays later, they capitalized on the field position when Johnson connected on a 32-yard touchdown pass to Freddie Brown.
It broke a 14-14 tie and gave Utah its first lead, a margin that quickly doubled after another good return.
John Peel took a punt back 25 yards to set up another score a 15-yard touchdown run by Reed on a reverse.
In a span of less than three minutes, the Utes had pulled ahead 28-14. They crossed the goal line again before the third quarter was complete. An 8-yard TD from Johnson to tight end Colt Sampson and Sakoda's PAT made it 35-14.
After a subpar first half, Johnson wound up completing 8-of-9 passes for 96 yards in the pivotal third quarter. He wound up throwing for 183 yards and rushing for a team-high 80 yards.
"There was no panic," Johnson said. "Guys knew we had to step up and make plays, and they did."
The defense did its part by putting the clamps on UNLV's Frank Summers. The running back, who burned Utah for 190 yards and two touchdowns in last year's
UNLV victory, had 82 yards at the midway point this time around. He had only five in the second half.
Game 3: Sept. 13
Battle of the brothers
Utah 58, Utah State 10
Romney Stadium (19,061)
LOGAN With the nation's 12th-oldest rivalry approaching a two-year hiatus, Utah and Utah State squared off at Romney Stadium for the last time until 2012.
The 108th version of the long-running series turned out to be memorable for the Utes and forgettable for the Aggies.
For the 11th consecutive year, Utah prevailed giving the 22nd-ranked Utes their first 3-0 start to a season since the BCS-busting campaign of 2004.
Quarterback Brian Johnson took a philosophical stance on the accomplishment.
"The best thing about being 3-0 is you've got the chance to be 4-0," said Johnson, who completed 22-of-31 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns. "We realize that this team hasn't played its best football yet.
"We've just got to keep working the process Monday through Friday, preparing the right way throughout the week, and Saturdays usually take care of themselves."
Whittingham, however, noted the Utes have room for improvement especially on punt returns, which he called a fiasco.
"Overall, we've got to get better," explained Whittingham, who noted that the defense played well and that the offense put points on the board. "We're not where we need to be, but it's just Week 3."
USU coach Brent Guy thought otherwise.
"We did not have any chance to win," he said. "They physically dominated us."
Defensive end Paul Kruger, who tied a school record with four sacks, headlined a defense that held the Aggies to just eight first downs and 2-of-12 futility on third-down conversions.
"It was a good game. Coaches prepared us well," Kruger said. "It was awesome. Everybody was flying around. I happened to be at the right place at the right time a few times. It was exciting and I'm very happy with everything that happened."
Game 4: Sept. 20
Utah 30, Air Force 23
Falcon Stadium (36,952)
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. Teams entering Falcon Stadium walk under a sign with a little reminder.
"Warning: Lack of oxygen. Elevation: 6,621 feet above sea level."
And as usual, Utah and Air Force kept everyone a bit breathless with another thrilling battle.
Darrell Mack's 9-yard touchdown run with 58 seconds to play lifted the 20th-ranked Utes to a hard-fought victory over the Falcons. It marked the third consecutive time they've prevailed in dramatic fashion at the academy.
"Anytime we play these guys it seems to come down to the very end, the very last drive," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "It was no different this afternoon."
The Utes overcame plenty of adversity to win the battle of undefeated teams and secure sole possession of the Mountain West Conference lead. They're now 4-0 overall and 2-0 in league play.
Three first-half turnovers proved costly and kept Air Force in the game. The Falcons (3-1, 1-1) led at halftime and played the Utes to a standstill until the final minute. They did so despite rushing for just 53 yards, their second-lowest total since installing an option offense in 1980.
"To hang in there with the adversity that we fought throughout the whole football game was a big compliment to the kids," said defensive coordinator Gary Andersen, who added that the defense did an unbelievable job stopping the Air Force option. "The kids knocked the run game out. I've never seen anything like it."
Middle linebacker Mike Wright led a balanced defense with 10 tackles. Defensive end Paul Kruger made 2.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage to top a list of nine Utes credited with tackles-for-loss.
"The defense played well start to finish," Whittingham said.
An interception by safety Joe Dale with 53 seconds remaining preserved the victory. It capped a seesaw affair that has become the norm in this conference rivalry.
Game 5: Sept. 27
Utah 37, Weber State 21
Rice-Eccles Stadium (45,117)
SALT LAKE CITY As far as postgame victory celebrations are concerned, the 17th-ranked Utes have had better. This one was followed by subdued activity on and off the field. In the press conference following the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, a reporter even told the players they were acting as though they had been defeated.
"We obviously don't feel like we lost. But we didn't play to our capabilities, to our best," said quarterback Brian Johnson. "You only get 12 or 13 chances at this, and you want to make the most of every one."
Next up: A home date against an Oregon State team coming off an upset of top-ranked USC.
"Right now everybody's not feeling great, and we shouldn't be feeling great. We want to come out and play well every week," said Johnson, who completed 18 of 22 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns in three quarters of action. "That's what we expect of ourselves, and I think that's what we expect of each other. We've just got to come out and do a better job."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged that Utah's focus has already shifted to Oregon State. However, he insists that wasn't the case before facing Weber State noting that the Utes would have liked to have won by 40 or 50 points.
"It didn't happen. Weber State is a good football team. Give them credit," Whittingham said. "I think that they've got a chance in the Big Sky to do some good things."
The Wildcats wound up with 359 yards of total offense, much of it coming against Utah's second unit, which gave up two late touchdowns. Otherwise, Whittingham felt the Utes gave just an "average performance" in their homecoming game.
"We got the win. We'd like to play great every week. I think every team in the country would like to play great every week," Whittingham said. "But no team does. We certainly would have liked to play better. But we're five weeks in and we're 5-0."
That's the bottom line, he said, while insisting the national polls aren't on his mind.
Game 6: Oct. 2
Utah 31, Oregon State 28
Rice-Eccles Stadium (45,599)
SALT LAKE CITY A 37-yard field goal by Louie Sakoda as time expired lifted the 15th-ranked Utes to a victory over Oregon State. The kick capped a wild comeback from an 8-point deficit in the final 1:29 and upped Utah's record to 6-0.
In the process, the Utes also became the nation's first bowl-eligible team.
After tying the game and then forcing the Beavers to punt after three plays, Utah began its game-winning drive. The Utes moved into field-goal range with a 16-yard pass from Brian Johnson to Brent Casteel with 36.3 seconds remaining. Darrell Mack followed with a four-yard run to the Oregon State 20.
Utah then let the clock run down to just two seconds before calling a timeout. When play resumed, Sakoda knocked the game-winner between the uprights.
"When I got out there, the only thing going through my head was concentrating on making the kick," Sakoda said. "This was the biggest kick of my career, without a doubt."
Turnovers and not the tasty treats found in a bakery continued to plague the Utes. They entered the game with six fumbles and five interceptions this season. Both tallies would grow before this game was complete.
Johnson, who vowed earlier in the week he was determined to avoid such miscues, fumbled just over one minute into the third quarter. He lost the ball after getting sacked by defensive end Slade Norris. Defensive tackle Pernnell Booth recovered it for Oregon State on the Utah 34.
Three plays later, the Beavers took a 21-20 lead on a 7-yard touchdown run by Jacquizz Rodgers.
It stayed that way until a wild exchange over a span of 49 seconds late in the fourth quarter.
Oregon State got things started with a sustained drive that covered 80 yards on 11 plays and took 6:35 off the clock. The Beavers converted on third-and-9 with a 41-yard pass from quarterback Lyle Moevao that gave them possession on the Utah 3. They cashed in with 2:18 to go on a 2-yard touchdown toss from Moevao to tight end Brady Camp.
After the PAT, Utah trailed 28-20. Four plays later, it was 28-26 after Johnson connected on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Bradon Godfrey.
The Utes then had two shots at a 2-point conversion. A second opportunity materialized after a pass interference call on the Beavers. Johnson capitalized on the situation by rolling right and running into the end zone to even things up, setting up the dramatic finish.
Johnson, who has led Utah to 14 wins in his last 15 starts, said the last two drives showed the team's toughness. He called it the "biggest win" since he joined the program.
Game 7: Oct. 11
Utah 40, Wyoming 7
War Memorial Stadium (17,123)
LARAMIE, Wyo. A win in the wind at War Memorial Stadium.
"We had one goal coming in," quarterback Brian Johnson said after 13th-ranked Utah's victory over Wyoming. "Get out of here 7-0, and that's what we did."
The Utes prevailed by scoring in a variety of ways rushing, passing, kicking and off a blocked kick, an interception return and a fumble recovery.
"Overall a positive day," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
Absolute perfection, however, still eludes the Utes.
"I think we're headed in the right direction. We still haven't played a complete game as far as hitting on all cylinders in all phases," Whittingham said. "Not many teams do that through the course of a season, as it's not the easy thing to do. They've been finding ways to win, and they've handled adversity well. But we have not played our best football as a team to this point."
Utah jumped out to an early 10-0 lead despite a slow start by the offense. The Utes had just 38 yards and two first downs in the opening quarter. Johnson said the swirling winds limited play calling early on.
Things eventually settled down, but the defense and special teams made significant contributions first.
"I think we played well in all three phases," Johnson said. "It was unbelievable winds out there."
Cornerback Sean Smith produced the first points for Utah. He intercepted a pass by Wyoming quarterback Karsten Sween, which was tipped by defensive end Paul Kruger, and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown less than four minutes into the game.
"That was huge," Whittingham said. "No doubt that set the tone right there."
Louie Sakoda followed with the PAT and later added a 50-yard field goal to extend the Utes' lead.
Between scores, Utah safety Joe Dale forced another turnover. Wyoming's Darius Terry fumbled the ball after getting by Dale and Robert Johnson recovered it for the Utes.
The defense held the Cowboys to only one first down in the opening quarter.
Game 8: Oct. 18
More than Ram tough
Utah 49, Colorado St. 16
Rice-Eccles Stadium (44,793)
SALT LAKE CITY Utah coach Kyle Whittingham didn't really want to talk about the Bowl Championship Series rankings after a lopsided win over Colorado State.
He said it's a topic the 14th-ranked Utes really don't discuss even with an 8-0 record on the eve of the first posted BCS standings of the season.
"People don't believe us, but we don't ever talk about that ever. We just talk about the next opponent and talk about trying to improve each week," Whittingham said. "There is none of that banter in our building. We're focused. You only control what you control, and that's going out and playing your best football every Saturday."
Utah's absolute best, though, is yet to come even after racking up 549 yards in total offense and shutting down the Rams (298 yards).
"It was our cleanest performance as an offense this season. It was our most consistent performance of the season," said Whittingham, who noted that the defensive numbers were also pretty good. "We were not as dominant on special teams as I would have liked, so there are things that we have to work on."
The Utes, who are now 4-0 in Mountain West Conference play, have plenty of time to iron things out. They have a bye week before returning to action Nov. 1 at New Mexico.
Utah held a 28-13 advantage at halftime.
When play resumed, the Rams crept a little closer with an early field goal.
The Utes, however, answered the challenge decisively with three consecutive touchdown drives one late in the third period and two early in the fourth.
The first response followed an interception by Chaz Walker near midfield. Just over two minutes later, Corbin Louks scored on a 21-yard run.
Two additional touchdowns followed. A 34-yard TD run by Jereme Brooks and a 69-yard scoring scamper by Louks put the game well out of reach with 9:30 to go. Louie Sakoda added his seventh PAT of the game to cap the rout.
Game 9: Nov. 1
Utah 13, New Mexico 10
University Stadium (40,094)
ALBUQUERQUE It certainly wasn't easy and at times it was downright dramatic.
When all was said and done, however, 10th-ranked Utah found a way to keep its Bowl Championship Series and Mountain West Conference title dreams alive.
The Utes improved to 9-0 for just the second time in school history with a narrow win over New Mexico.
"We've got to win tough road games in this conference to even come close to winning the championship," quarterback Brian Johnson said as he walked off the field. "We're happy to get out of here with a win. We're 9-0 now and we can move forward to a big game Thursday night."
That's when Utah and TCU tangle in a battle of nationally ranked teams at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Defensive coordinator Gary Andersen acknowledged this "hard- fought game" may be the start of something special down the stretch.
"Great teams find a way. We've got a few more games to see if we're great," he said. "We'll find out. But we wouldn't have been great if we didn't (win this) one."
The Utes held firm on a final 10-play drive by the Lobos, keeping them out of Utah territory until the last snap. The game ended on a completed pass that landed them on the 46-yard line.
"The kids found a way at the end to stop them on that last drive and that was huge," Andersen said.
The stop extended Utah's overall winning streak to 10 games.
"This was a tough game right here. New Mexico is real good,"
safety Robert Johnson said. "We knew it was going to be a tough battle from the get-go."
Utah's offense was held 26 points below its season average. Penalties and two turnovers stymied an effort to match the Utes' solid performance against Colorado State two weeks earlier.
Game 10: Nov. 6
Utah 13, TCU 10
Rice-Eccles Stadium (45,666)
SALT LAKE CITY So much for 10th-ranked Utah's "blackout."
After a dramatic come-from-behind win over No. 11 TCU, things brightened up considerably at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Fans, most dressed in black, stormed the field as the Utes improved to 10-0 and took sole possession of the Mountain West Conference lead.
And then there's the whole Bowl Championship Series thing. Utah is closing in on its second invitation in five seasons.
"We've still got two football games to go," quarterback Brian Johnson said after engineering a late, game-winning two-minute drive.
"This is nice to be 10-0, obviously, but I think the thing that we have to realize is there's a lot of work left to be done. It starts with beating San Diego State next week."
Johnson completed 7-of-9 passes in a final drive that lifted the Utes to victory Thursday night. A 9-yard scoring strike to Freddie Brown with 48 seconds remaining proved to be the difference.
It capped a drive that started with 2:48 remaining after TCU kicker Ross Evans missed the second of two field-goal attempts he had in the final 5:49. The freshman hit the left upright on a 26-yard kick three minutes before going wide right on a 36-yard try.
The latter gave Utah the ball and time to do something with it.
"We were very confident," Johnson said. "There was no panic when we got the ball back with a chance now to win it."
Even so, the Utes needed to convert on fourth down once along the way. They did so when Johnson teamed with Brown on a 15-yard reception with 1:24 to go.
Two plays later, the duo hooked up on the only touchdown Utah needed.
"You have to give Utah credit. They found a way to win the ball game," said TCU coach Gary Patterson. "Not taking anything away from Utah, (but) we missed two field goals, and it's just one of those things. Utah plays well as a unit. They have guys who make plays."
Game 11: Nov. 15
Hitting on all cylinders
Utah 63, San Diego State 14
I>Qualcomm Stadium (19,342)
SAN DIEGO Utah got what it wanted at Qualcomm Stadium a share of the Mountain West Conference title. What the eighth-ranked Utes didn't get in a win over San Diego State was complete satisfaction.
That will have to wait.
It'll require a victory over BYU next week. A triumph over the Cougars would give the Utes their third outright conference crown since 2003 and most likely earn them a second trip to the Bowl Championship Series, following in the footsteps of the 2004 team.
"There's still work to do. We still want to be outright conference champions and we've got a chance to do that next week," said Utah quarterback Brian Johnson. "We'll be ready to play and it'll be a great game."
Johnson directed an offense that netted 520 total yards and 30 first downs. He threw five touchdown passes in Utah's final road game of the season.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said the Utes just did what they had to do.
"I'm real happy with our execution and look to build on that next week," he explained.
Johnson agreed. He was especially pleased by the final result.
"It was fun to get some points. We had 13 points the last two weeks (in wins over New Mexico and TCU)," Johnson said. "To come out and score 49 on offense and get two more on defense is something we wanted to do offensively, and we got it done."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted that his team was "hitting on all cylinders" against the Aztecs.
"I thought we handled ourselves very well in this game," he said.
"We did what we should have done as far as moving the football on offense and playing tough defense. Special teams were very good."
Utah has now won a share of four MWC titles. The first came in 1999, the league's inaugural season, when the Utes shared it with BYU and Colorado State.
"We've got another game in the season," Whittingham said. "And obviously we want to finish the deal."
Game 12: Nov. 22
Bowl-busters: Part II
Utah 48, BYU 24
Rice-Eccles Stadium (46,488)
SALT LAKE CITY They did it again.
For the second time in five seasons, the original Bowl Championship Series busters are poised for another trip to college football's promised land. A lopsided win over BYU sealed the deal for Utah.
The Utes, who defeated Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, entered the game ranked seventh in the BCS standings. They completed the regular season with a 12-0 record and an outright Mountain West Conference championship after defeating the No. 14 Cougars (10-2).
BCS pairings will be announced on Dec. 7.
"I couldn't be more proud of the guys on this team," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We had a great season."
Great was a word Whittingham used frequently after the Utes defeated the Cougars for the first time since 2005.
"We played great in every phase of the game today offense, defense and special teams so I'm happy with our effort," he said.
"Brian (Johnson) played a great game. All three coordinators did a great job. Now, all we can do is sit back and let the rest of the season unfold. It would take a perfect storm for us to get (into the BCS title game), but there are a couple more weekends of football left and it will be interesting to watch," Whittingham added.
Utah sharpened up its resume against the Cougars.
Johnson led the offense by completing 30-of-36 passes for 303 yards and four touchdowns.
"If he's not an all-conference quarterback," Whittingham said, "I don't know who is."
Johnson, one of 18 seniors playing his final home game for the Utes, acknowledged a BCS-clinching win over BYU was the perfect way to go out.
"Tonight was a tough challenge and we stuck together and played well," Johnson said. "It's always a big challenge for me to play against other great quarterbacks and try to be the best at my position on the field."
Johnson certainly had a better outing than Max Hall. The Cougars' quarterback was 21-of-42 for 205 yards. He was intercepted five times and lost a fumble that Utah recovered.
Jan. 2, 2009
Utah 31, Alabama 17
Louisiana Superdome (71,872)
NEW ORLEANS It couldn't get any sweeter than this.
Besides winning the 75th anniversary Sugar Bowl, Utah's win over Alabama in the Louisiana Superdome capped a 13-0 season for the Utes.
They finished the season as the only undefeated team in the nation.
"This is the best," said quarterback Brian Johnson. "We're the best team in the country."
Johnson was named the game's Most Outstanding Player after completing 27-of-41 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns.
"All we heard is how they were the better team. It was all about Alabama," he added. "Nobody thought we could do it. The national pundits, no one. We believed in ourselves."
In defeating the heavily favored Crimson Tide, the Utes extended two of college football's longest active winning streaks. They've now won 14 consecutive games overall dating back to last season and extended their run of bowl victories to eight straight.
This one, however, made the Utes worthy of national championship consideration.
"I think so," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "But it's not up to me."
The Utes' second successful Bowl Championship Series appearance in five years led to a post-game celebration on the field of the massive facility. Thousands of Utah fans cheered from the stands.
"This feels great. It's a dream come true. We could not ask for anything else," said wide receiver Bradon Godfrey. "I think we gained some respect for our conference, and this is quite an accomplishment for the Mountain West Conference. No one gave us a chance."
The underdogs, however, found a way to get it done.
"I have to give a lot of credit to the Utah team," said Alabama coach Nick Saban. "They played an outstanding game."
Defense played a big role, with the Utes recording eight sacks and holding run-oriented Alabama to just 31 yards on the ground. Robert Johnson had two interceptions.
E-mail: [email protected]