The University of Utah’s road to the Sugar Bowl began in San Diego, a year before and nearly 2,000 miles away.
After his team edged Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl to complete another adventurous season in Kyle Whittingham’s tenure, Utah’s coach quickly turned his thoughts to 2008 as he stood on the Qualcomm Stadium field. “This team,” he told linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, “is going to be as good as you want it to be.”
How good? How about perfect?
The story of the ’08 Utes, 10 years later, is about a team defined by unusual talent for a Mountain West football program, the toughness it took to win five games by a total of 18 points and the confidence to overwhelm an Alabama program that has gone on to dominate college football in this decade.
The ‘08 season solidified Whittingham’s job after he stood 16-13 early in his third season of ’07, improved the Utes’ credentials for a Pac-12 invitation two years later and remains highly meaningful to everyone involved in the 13-0 production. “I just remember how much fun it was,” Sylvester said.
Approaching his 25th season in the program (14th as head coach), Whittingham marvels about a year when the Utes repeatedly responded. “So many gut checks,” he said. “That team passed every one of them.”
Interviews with players and coaches this month validated Whittingham’s statement. Ask five people to name the defining game of ’08, and you might get five different answers. Whittingham started with the season opener at Michigan, where the Utes faced new coach Rich Rodriguez in the Big House and held on for a 25-23 victory.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig cited the winning drive against TCU in November, a Thursday night “Blackout” event at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a meeting of Top 10 teams. The Utes had posted 210 total yards and not come anywhere near the end zone before launching an 80-yard touchdown drive (including a fourth-and-5 conversion) for a 13-10 victory.
Quarterback Brian Johnson pointed to the previous week, when the Utes overcame a sluggish effort to earn a 13-10 win at lowly New Mexico. Safety Robert Johnson thought of a September visit to Air Force, where defensive coordinator Gary Andersen used a four-safety scheme and Utah outplayed the Falcons all afternoon, yet needed a late touchdown drive in a 30-23 victory.
Anyone who knows Sylvester can picture him going through the schedule week by week, summarizing, “Every game has a different story.” He gave extra emphasis to a 48-24 defeat of rival BYU in late November, when Cougar quarterback Max Hall lost six turnovers. Also prominent in his mind: An October win over Oregon State, after the Beavers had just beaten No. 1 USC. The Utes trailed 28-20 in the last three minutes, but pieced together a touchdown, a 2-point conversion and a Louie Sakoda field goal as time expired.
A PERFECT SEASON:
Utah 25, Michigan 23 • Utes hold on after building 25-10 lead.
Utah 42, UNLV 21 • ’07 shutout in Las Vegas is avenged.
Utah 58, Utah State 10 • Aggies produce 116 total yards.
Utah 30, Air Force 23 • Utes overcome four turnovers, halftime deficit.
Utah 37, Weber State 21 • Wildcats are competitive in Ron McBride’s return.
Utah 31, Oregon State 28 • Utes score 11 points in the last 89 seconds.
Utah 40, Wyoming 7 • Special teams and defense account for three touchdowns.
Utah 49, Colorado State 16 • Offense posts a season-high 549 yards.
Utah 13, New Mexico 10 • Lobos stall at midfield on two late drives.
Utah 13, TCU 10 • Horned Frogs scored only on first two drives.
Utah 48, BYU 24 • BYU’s Max Hall commits six turnovers.
Utah 31, Alabama 17 • As 10-point underdogs, Utes lead 21-0 after 11 minutes.
They all like to talk about beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and why not? That game remains Whittingham’s signature moment, in the final appearances for Ludwig and Andersen (prior to Andersen’s return to the program in January).
The context of ’08 is an era before the College Football Playoff was established, raising an obvious question: Would the Utes, as the country’s only unbeaten team, have made the semifinals in the current system? It would have happened only if the CFP committee members treated them better than the media and coaches polls and the computers tasked with ranking teams in ’08 — and if they regarded Utah higher than they viewed Central Florida last December, as a comparable case.
The Utes never rose above No. 7 in the AP Top 25 before the Sugar Bowl, and they finished No. 6 in the BCS standings. That gave Utah a Sugar Bowl berth against No. 4 Alabama, while No. 3 Texas beat No. 10 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. No. 2 Florida — coached by Urban Meyer, who led Utah to a 12-0 season in 2004 — defeated No. 1 Oklahoma in the BCS title game.
“I really do believe we would have beaten Florida,” Sylvester said, launching into a mock game plan. “No question about that.”
That statement can’t be proven or unproven. Yet his analysis going into the Sugar Bowl was accurate. Having watched the tapes of every Alabama game multiple times, he remembers thinking, “Why are [people] saying they’re that good? I didn’t see it.”
Brian Johnson, now the quarterbacks coach at Florida, suggested a comparison of Sugar Bowl personnel would be favorable to Utah, and he’s right. From the ’08 roster, 13 Utah players would be taken in the next four NFL drafts and three others enjoyed extended careers as free agents. That’s astounding in the Utes’ Mountain West era.
NFL-BOUND: Players drafted from Utah’s 2008 roster (with round):
2009 • Paul Kruger (2), DE; Sean Smith (2), CB; Brice McCain (6), CB; Freddie Brown (7), WR.
2010 • Koa Misi (2), LB; Zane Beadles (2) OL; Robert Johnson (5), DB; David Reed (5),WR; Stevenson Sylvester (5), LB; R.J. Stanford (7), CB.
2011 • Brandon Burton (5), CB; Caleb Schlauderaff (6), OL.
2012 • Tony Bergstrom (3), OL.
Note • RB Matt Asiata, DL Derrick Shelby and DL Sealver Siliga went on to extended NFL careers as undrafted free agents.
Beyond those athletes, Brian Johnson and Sakoda, a punter-kicker, may have been the ’08 team’s MVPs, and they never played in the NFL. The staff also maximized players such as receiver Bradon Godfrey and linebacker Mike Wright.
“We prided ourselves on being a developmental program,” Ludwig said.
Alabama would have 10 players from the Sugar Bowl active roster taken in the next two drafts, and freshmen Mark Ingram (the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner) and receiver Julio Jones would become first-round picks in 2011. Yet the Utes held Ingram to 26 yards on eight carries and Jones to seven catches for 77 yards, reasonable totals considering what he has done in the NFL.
And in decidedly un-Whittingham style, the Utes won 31-17 while rushing for 13 yards and allowing punt-return touchdown. They thrived because Johnson passed for 336 yards, operating mostly in a no-huddle scheme from the start. Ludwig clearly remembers the first play, Jereme Brooks catching a pass for 19 yards, and the Utes raced to the line of scrimmage.
Utah’s spread scheme with short passing was unlike anything Alabama’s defense had faced, Ludwig said, and the Utes played with confidence. They quickly scored a touchdown … and another … and another. Just like that, it was 21-0 after 11 minutes. In those drives, Johnson completed 10 of 14 passes for 139 yards, as he topped off a five-year career previously marked by injuries and intermittent success. Everything came together in a senior season that Ludwig outlined for him two years before, when Johnson decided to redshirt.
The narrative from Alabama’s perspective would become how the Crimson Tide were disinterested after missing their national title shot,. But that wouldn’t explain how Utah responded with a crisp TD drive after Alabama trimmed the lead to 21-17 in the third quarter.
“For us, it was no shock, doing what we did,” Brian Johnson said.
Sylvester recorded three of the Utes’ eight sacks and Robert Johnson intercepted two passes as Utah’s defense held Alabama to 208 total yards.
Everything coach Nick Saban and the Tide have done since then makes Utah’s domination more impressive. Alabama has won five national championships in nine years, while going 113-12. Utah is 73-42 in those nine seasons, including 53-36 in the Pac-12 era (28-35 in conference games).
The only active coaches who have beaten Saban are Auburn’s Gus Malzahn (twice), Meyer (once each at Florida and Ohio State), Kevin Sumlin (then at Texas A&M), Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Whittingham.
Four days before the Sugar Bowl, Whittingham received his first contract extension, earning a $1 million annual salary that evoked big headlines. That seems quaint, now that he’s earning $3.7 million. He faced a difficult transition to the Pac-12, but responded with a breakthrough season in 2014 after two years of missing a bowl game, and remains entrenched at age 58. His ’08 staff members have experienced the transient nature of the profession; only safeties coach Morgan Scalley, then in his first year as a full-time coach and now the defensive coordinator, has remained on Utah’s staff.
Ludwig has worked at five schools, all by his choice, since the Sugar Bowl. He’s now Vanderbilt’s offensive coordinator, while Whittingham has used eight play-callers since he left — including Brian Johnson and ’08 assistants Aaron Roderick (two stints) and Dave Schramm. Three staff members have become head coaches: BYU’s Kalani Sitake, Weber State’s Jay Hill and Andersen, who led three FBS programs before coming back to Utah as a defensive assistant. Cornerbacks coach Aaron Alford died of a heart attack in 2013, while working in at Park City High School.
The staff’s influence remains strong. After playing in the NFL for a combined eight seasons, Sylvester and Robert Johnson have devoted themselves to charitable work. Working with former teammate Chaz Walker, they’ve launched the Kongo Kares Foundation to assist disadvantaged youth. Utah’s coaches, Sylvester said, “always encouraged us to give back.”
That’s part of the legacy of the ’08 Utes, the team that took wins away from Saban and everybody else.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Utah’s 2008 coaching staff (and current positions):
Gary Andersen, defensive coordinator (Utah defensive assistant).
Andy Ludwig, offensive coordinator (Vanderbilt OC).
Charlie Dickey, offensive line (Kansas State line coach).
Jay Hill, tight ends/special teams (Weber State head coach).
Aaron Roderick, receivers (BYU quarterbacks coach).
Dave Schramm, running backs (Weber State OC).
Kalani Sitake, linebackers (BYU head coach).
Morgan Scalley, safeties (Utah defensive coordinator).
Aaron Alford, cornerbacks (died in 2013).