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Tide crashes hard in Sugar Bowl

NEW ORLEANS – Nobody gave Utah a chance in Friday night’s Sugar Bowl, but Alabama found out right away that it didn’t matter what conference the Utes were in, they had come to play.

The only remaining unbeaten team in the country jumped out to a quick 21-0 lead before the Crimson Tide could even blink, and for the first time all year Alabama had to play catch up.

Despite a comeback attempt led by the Tide’s defense and special teams, Utah hung on for a 31-17 win in front of 75,000 at the Superdome to remain perfect on the season.

On their first drive of the game, the Utes marched down the field and scored in just five plays. Quarterback Brian Johnson, who was a perfect 5-for-5 on the drive, found Brent Casteel on a seven-yard touchdown pass.

It didn’t take long for Utah’s offense to get back on the field after free safety Robert Johnson intercepted John Parker Wilson on the Tide’s second play of the drive.

Three plays later, David Reed made a leaping catch at the two-yard line for 30 yards to set up Matt Asiata’s two-yard touchdown run, making it 14-0. Asiata took the direct snap and ran straight in for the score.

For an Alabama team who had outscored their opponents 133-27 in the first quarter coming into the game, the Tide looked dumbfounded.

Utah’s offense kept up the attack on its next drive, going 65 yards on seven plays and scoring its third touchdown of the game. Johnson connected with Bradon Godfrey from 18 yards out for his second scoring strike of the game.

Johnson finished the game 27-of-41 for 336 yards and 3 touchdowns and was named the Sugar Bowl MVP.

The Alabama offense finally sustained a drive into Utah territory late in the first quarter but had to settle for a long field goal when Wilson was sacked on third down by Kenape Eliapo.

It was the fourth sack given up by the Tide in the first quarter alone, who clearly missed Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith.

Alabama also lost Smith’s replacement at left tackle, Mike Johnson, to an ankle injury during the first quarter. Drew Davis moved from right tackle over to left tackle and freshman John Michael Boswell took over at right tackle.

With the makeshift line playing all game, it was clear the Tide lacked the continuity it had on the line all year, giving up 7 sacks on the night. Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester recorded three sacks to lead the Utes.

Midway through the second quarter, Alabama desperately needed a spark and finally got one from return specialist Javier Arenas, who had come up with big plays all year for the Tide.

Arenas ran a Louie Sakoda punt back 73 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-10. Arenas looked like he was stopped at midfield but broke free and took it the distance, energizing the Alabama faithful.

For Arenas, it was his sixth punt return for a touchdown in his Alabama career, extending his own record. It was also the fourth-longest return by a Tide player in a bowl game.

In the second half, Alabama’s defense got the big play it was looking for when Utah’s Johnson fumbled on the first play and senior Bobby Greenwood recovered.

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower came through and knocked the ball out of Johnson’s hand as he was going to throw it.

The Tide offense responded with a seven-play, 30-yard drive, capped off by a four-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Glen Coffee to make it 21-17. Just like that, Alabama was right back in the game.

The momentum didn’t last long as Utah answered with a touchdown drive of their own to put the Utes back on top 28-17. On third and ten, Johnson hit Reed, who spun out of a tackle by Kareem Jackson and ran untouched into the end zone.

The touchdown was the knockout blow for the Tide, who never recovered. A missed field goal and a fumble by Wilson killed any chance of a comeback.

Utah tacked on a late field to make it 31-17 and hand Alabama its second straight loss to end the season. For Utah, it was their eighth straight bowl victory and the Utes became the first team from a non-BCS conference to win two BCS bowls.