NEW ORLEANS - Coach Nick Saban and the Alabama players repeatedly said the Sugar Bowl will be a key to how this team will be remembered.
If true, that’s bad news for the No. 4 Crimson Tide. Down to its third-team left tackle, Alabama’s offensive line uncharacteristically struggled and its normally stingy defense was victimized by quarterback Brian Johnson and No. 7 Utah in a 31-17 Sugar Bowl loss Friday night.
Alabama (12-2) couldn’t summon up the physical, feisty style that led to a perfect regular season and the absence of All-America left tackle Andre Smith clearly hurt.
The Tide had no answer to the spread, no-huddle offenses of Florida and former Utah coach Urban Meyer in the Southeastern Conference championship game or the Utes (13-0) in the Sugar Bowl. And a regular season that ended with Alabama holding the No. 1 ranking seems a distant memory.
“You’ve got to finish,” tailback Glen Coffee said. “This does put a damper on our season, no matter how much light you try to throw on it, no matter how much you try to make it sound good or sound like a Cinderella story. We didn’t finish and that’s something we’ve got to live with the rest of our lives.”
The beleaguered offensive line was vulnerable to a quick, aggressive defense. Smith, the Outland Trophy winner, was home in Birmingham after being suspended four days before the game for alleged dealings with an agent.
Replacement Mike Johnson, normally a starting guard, left with an injured right ankle in the first quarter and didn’t return.
“We lost two of our three best offensive linemen in this game,” Saban said. “We struggled to pass block. We didn’t give our quarterback a chance too many times in the pocket to be able to throw the ball effectively. We were basically ineffective running the football for the most part.
“It starts up front. I don’t think we did a very good job up front in this game, and we’ve done a great job all year up front. And that’s been sort of the trademark of our team, is our ability to run and not make bad plays.”
David Ross took Johnson’s normal spot. Right tackle Drew Davis switched sides and freshman John Michael Boswell replaced him.
A line that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had said was the key to Alabama’s offense was suddenly a weak spot. Alabama’s John Parker Wilson was sacked eight times and harried into two interceptions and a fumble. All-SEC tailback Coffee was held to 36 yards rushing.
And Brian Johnson picked Alabama apart early to push Utah to a 21-0 lead, only the second time all season that Alabama has been down after the first quarter. The nation’s No. 3 defense allowed 150 yards in that quarter after coming into the game giving up 257 a game.
“It was tough to start out down 21-0, but we still had a lot of time left to go,” Wilson said. “Nobody panicked. We were just going to stay with our game plan.”
The game plan, as usual, largely centers on the running game. Alabama was held to 31 yards on 33 attempts after coming in averaging nearly 200 yards a game.
“We didn’t come out of the locker room ready to play,” Davis said. “We got out of position several times and they capitalized. We lost a few guys on the line early, but we can’t place the blame on that. We had a lot of faith in our offensive line and we’re very disappointed we didn’t finish strong.”
The biggest play for Alabama was Javier Arenas’ 73-yard punt return for a touchdown to make it 21-10 in the second quarter. Wilson’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Coffee made it 21-17 early in the third, but Alabama didn’t score again.
And the Alabama players leave a once-sweet season with a sour taste.
“We didn’t finish the season like we wanted and I’m sorry for that,” Saban said. “I’m sorry for them. I think they deserved better. We wanted better for them.”
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No. 7 Utah 31, No. 4 Alabama 17