Preparation, Strategy, and Execution Wins the Sugar Bowl

D DavisCorrespondent IJanuary 4, 2009

- I was at the game
- Various "day-after" newspaper articles about the game (Times Picayune, NOLA & Press-Register, Mobile)

The Utes had all three elements down about as perfectly as you could ask for the 2009 75th Anniversary Sugar Bowl. The Tide had not-a-one.


Besides keeping in physical shape, there are three things a team can do to prepare for a recently former No.1 team you have never faced before; Film, film, and more film. And the Utes had studied hard.

What’s the evidence? Ute QB Brian Johnson was able to read every defensive scheme the Tide showed him and circumvent the vast majority of them. And the Ute defense sacked the Tide QB eight times (Wilson had suffered only six sacks the entire season until then).

Nick Saban, Tide Coach: “He was the best quarterback we’ve faced all season.”

That’s quite a compliment coming from a coach that had just faced and lost to a Heisman Trophy winner in Gator Tim Tebow the game before.

Brian Johnson, Utes: “I had a great bead on what they were doing defensively, and you can only do so much when you spread them out. It was all film work.” (emphasis mine)


How was a team from a conference wrongly considered as “lowly” as the Mountain West going to beat the storied, mighty, SEC powerhouse of Alabama Tide? That’s where the preparation really comes to fruition. Film baby!

Sean Smith, Utes: “We came expecting to lose to the former No. 1 team in the nation. But when I saw them on film, all I saw was a running game, and you can’t come back with a running game. So our plan was to get on top early and keep them down.”

Make the SEC team play Mountain West Conference football.

Brian Johnson, Utes: “The more and more tape we watched, the more and more confident we got with our scheme.”


The Utes executed their game plan about as perfectly as possible from the very beginning. That great, huge, monstrous, massive Tide O-line that pushed around and “rolled” so many SEC defenses throughout the season; pushing their opponents backwards, opening huge holes for the running game, etc., etc., was relegated by the Ute game plan and defensive unit to a back-on-their-heals, pass-blocking line with their hands full of white jerseys blitzing from everywhere.

The stellar Ute defense showed its prowess, and yes, power, right up front. SEC style football and the smash-mouth, grind-em-down, multiple-minutes-long scoring drive offense that the Tide was so good at was met by a three-and-out first drive, courtesy of the Ute defense.

Nick Saban, Tide Coach: “Give a lot of credit to Utah. We couldn’t run on their defense, they pressured our quarterback all night…”

And it wasn’t just because of the suspension of Andre Smith or the injury to his replacement either. The Utes proved they could certainly handle that “massive front” O-line that was the pride of the Tide.

Mike Herndon, Press-Register, Mobile sports reporter: “The Utes came from everywhere. Sylvester got past Johnson on a blitz in the first quarter. Linebacker Kepa Gaison bull-rushed tight end Travis McCall. Nose tackle Kenape Eliapo ran past David Ross. End Koa Misi ran around Boswell in the second quarter to create another sack, with Gaison cleaning up.
Sean Smith put a bow on the victory with 5:13 to play, stripping Wilson on a corner blitz, with Sylvester recovering to all but seal the victory.”

After that first stop is when the Utes strategy started really taking shape. Score early, quick, and often—then hold ‘em.

The Utes ran five quick pass plays; 7-0, Utes. The Tide had to answer with a quick score of their own to stem the Ute momentum. Unfortunately for the Tide, quick scoring = passing. And in the case of the Tide this night, because of the great Ute defense pressuring Tide QB John Parker Wilson, Tide passing = Ute interception.

By the end of the first quarter; Utes 21 – Tide 0. There goes that momentum.

Score early, quick, and often the Utes did. The first three drives from the Utes scored six points each, and took less than five minutes of possession time combined. Drive one took five plays for 68 yards in 1:19; drive two took five plays for 32 yards in 1:37; drive three was seven plays for 65 yards in 1:57.

Brian Johnson, Utes: “They just lined up in a base, vanilla defense when we spread them out and we were able to exploit it.”

The Utes effectively forced the Tide to play Mountain West Conference football; quick-driving, high-octane, fast-scoring, come-back football. Not the type of football that the Tide was very experienced with, or evidently very good at, and the Ute defense was even better at defending.

The Tide wanted to grind the Utes into the ground with their big O-line & awesome running game. But the Utes prevented that Tide strategy from even getting a start.

Robert Johnson, Tide: “We’ve been a run-first team all year. You get some injuries and get behind and you’ve got to throw. That’s not the kind of team we are. That’s not what we’re used to. There’s a reason we’re a run-first team, because we’re good at it.”

And Utah knew it from their superior preparation.

With 11 minutes left in the first quarter, the route was on. Even though the point spread in the final score at the end of the game was only three more than the SEC title game the Tide lost to the Gators, the Sugar Bowl game was a much different game. The Utes took it to the Tide and built a commanding, 21-point lead right up front and the Tide never got over the shock.

Then the Utes halted a mediocre come-back attempt by scoring another touchdown in the third quarter. The game was all but done, and the Tide fans knew it. They’d been rolled.

At 5:13 left in the game, the Ute defense sealed the deal by that Sean Smith ball-strip from Wilson and the Tide fans had had enough and started to “roll”—out of the Superdome, creating a tide of a whole different kind.

I know, I was right in the middle of them. After listening to “rooooooooooll Tide, roll!” all day long, and well meaning, polite, but very condescending comments like, “have you guys ever faced anything as massive as our O-line?”, “we hope you can make it a close game” or the ever-repeated, “what’s a Ute anyway?” (I thought UofA supplied a good education—ever heard of Wiki or Google?).

It was so satisfying to watch them all start streaming out of the Superdome with 5:13 still left on the clock! They were still the polite southern gents, to their credit—but at last the cocky condescension had been rebuffed.

Running down the stairs to get closer to the field for the trophy presentation, all I heard from the Tide-al wave of Bama faithful headed out of the building was, “[so-and-so] needs to get fired,” “someone ought to have Saban’s head.” My personal favorite was, “we got out-coached, out-schemed, and out-played by a better team.” Honestly, I overheard that straight from a purple-crimson-clad fan on the stairs without me uttering one sound.

I have to agree...Yes they did!


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