Utah ready for big finale to breakthrough season
Dec. 31, 2004
SportsLine.com wire reports
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Utah used an unstoppable offense to break through the walls surrounding college football's big bowls.
Now the unbeaten Utes are expected to do more than merely win the Fiesta Bowl. They are supposed to win big over Big East champion Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
That's heady stuff for the Mountain West Conference champs, who will bring a large chunk of Salt Lake City's population with them for the game at Sun Devil Stadium.
"This has been pretty dreamlike," quarterback Alex Smith said. "This has been a goal of ours since January, and to finally reach it, it's pretty surreal. I'm just trying to take it all in and not let it go by too fast."
Coach Urban Meyer, who brought about Utah's improbable climb to national prominence, will coach his final game for the Utes, sharing duties with his successor, defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham.
After two years at Bowling Green and two at Utah, Meyer is bound for Florida. He leaves behind a Utah program that represents the hopes of every school outside the six conferences that make up the Bowl Championship Series.
The Utes (11-0) are the first non-BCS team to make it to one of the four elite bowls - automatically qualifying by finishing sixth in the BCS rankings.
They did it with an offense that averaged more than 500 yards and 45 points per game. On 60 trips inside an opponent's 20-yard line, the Utes scored touchdowns 85 percent of the time. Utah scored fewer than 40 points in a game only twice.
Meyer's explanation of his offense is simple.
"It's a personnel-based offense," he said. "Spread the field, and let the good players touch the ball."
Smith, fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, is the best of those players.
Second in the country in passing efficiency, the junior from La Mesa, Calif., completed 66 percent of his passes this season for 2,624 yards and 28 touchdowns, with just four interceptions. He also ran for 563 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
"They have an extraordinary player at quarterback," Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris said. "He's not only a good runner -- runs the option well -- he's also an outstanding passer. I think the other quality that separates him from most quarterbacks is he's tough as nails. He's the guy that makes it go."
Smith, who might enter the NFL draft after this season, said there is no more enjoyable offense to run than the one Meyer has developed.
"We give a ton of different looks," the QB said. "It's pretty amazing when you can run the option and the spread from the same formation."
The best hope for the Panthers (8-3) is to keep Utah's offense on the sidelines.
"I'm not real big on talking about all the things that we're going to do," Harris said. "I just know that to help our defense, we've got to play the kicking game extremely well, and offensively we've got to control the ball -- and score."
That requires a good game from left-handed sophomore quarterback Tyler Palko, who finished the season strong -- 16 TD passes and two interceptions in the last five games.
"We feel like we can score on anybody," Palko said. The Utes, he added, "have given up a lot of points because they're so aggressive, and they make a lot of plays. They'll take those chances because their offense is so potent."
The Panthers have endured criticism that they really don't belong in the Fiesta Bowl. Pittsburgh was just 21st in the BCS ratings but earned an automatic bid as the champions of a Big East depleted by the departures of Miami and Virginia Tech to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"Look at the newspapers," Pitt running back Tim Murphy said. "We are 16-point underdogs. People say we shouldn't be here. We did what we had to do. What's the big deal? I bet they wish there was a team with a better record than 8-3, but they set the requirements and we met them."
Pitt, West Virginia, Boston College and Syracuse all were 4-2 in the not-so-Big East, but the Panthers had the tiebreaker to earn the first BCS invitation in Harris' eight years at the school. It also is his last year.
With Pittsburgh's administration showing little support, Harris opted to accept an offer from Stanford. Dave Wannstedt, who resigned this season as coach of the NFL's Miami Dolphins, was hired by Pitt to replace him.
Harris' departure is tinged with bitterness, so a final victory would be especially sweet.
"That would look like a pretty good indication that we had brought our program back to where you want to be," he said.