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Utah football: Utes had talent, but won with heart

Published January 11, 2009 9:45 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I admit it, I was wrong. Very wrong. Way back in August I didn't think Utah's football team was going to beat Michigan and picked the Wolverines to win.

I was wrong. The Utes held on to win 25-23.

As for going undefeated, I didn't think the Utes could do it. I thought Oregon State or TCU or maybe New Mexico would knock off the Utes.

I judged them on paper, saw they had a good offense coming back, a great leader in quarterback Brian Johnson and a solid secondary. But I also saw they had an inexperienced defensive line hit by injuries, then saw inconsistencies in that offense and perhaps too much dependency on kicker Louie Sakoda for points.

Only with Utah's 13-10 win over TCU did I start to think there was something to this Utah team. By then, with two missed field goals by the Horned Frogs and another game-winning drive by Johnson and Co., did I really start to think there was more to this Utah team than some talent with a lot of luck. There was something to the way they kept surviving.

The only consolation in my misguided judgment is that I'm far from being alone at the table eating crow. Most of the nation -- I think it was 89.7 percent, according to the ESPN fan poll that had Alabama beating Utah in the Sugar Bowl -- is with me.

All those blue-chip players and big wins over SEC teams made many believe the Tide was going to roll.

What we forgot to give the Utes credit for having was heart and desire.

Those are intangibles most great teams have, but we all underestimated how much it drove the Utes this season, and ultimately it earned them a Sugar Bowl win.

The Utes had talent, they proved that, but more than physical attributes the Utes won games in 2008 with a determination that never failed them.

That never was more obvious than in the Sugar Bowl. Think about it, the Utes had a former walk-on punter starting at linebacker in Kepa Gaison, and a freshman former defensive end starting at nose tackle in Derrick Shelby.

I know Alabama's line went through some last-minute shuffling with the suspension of Andre Smith and a game-ending injury to his replacement in the first half, but still, that the Utes held Alabama to just 31 yards rushing was an amazing feat.

After the game, offensive lineman Dustin Hensel told me he injured his foot in the first half and he was given something to numb the pain at halftime. "I didn't care what it was," he said. "I knew I had to be out there."

Johnson, meanwhile, took a big hit on his shoulder and he stayed in the game too. I can't imagine him going out with an injury that didn't require a stretcher to get him off the field.

Desire, heart, courage, guts, the real national champions -- describe the Utes however you want. Were they the most talented group of individual athletes in college football in 2008? No, there were other teams with better pedigrees and more future pros. But the Utes were the best team with more desire than anyone else. In that respect the 2008 Utes were not only untouchable, they were perfect.

lwodraska@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">lwodraska@sltrib.com