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Utes seek a top 10 ranking with a win over Texas in the Alamo Bowl

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae (6) and defensive tackle John Penisini (52), shown tackling Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert in a loss in the Pac-12 championship game, hope to leave fans with a better impression as they face Texas in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.

San Antonio • As he prepares to exit Utah’s football program, senior defensive end Bradlee Anae made one request.

“I just want to be remembered,” he said.

That’s just about guaranteed for the consensus All-American and a leader of the one of the best defenses in school history. Yet the exact way Anae and his 2019 teammates will be remembered is conditional, going into Tuesday night’s Alamo Bowl vs. Texas.

The Utes have made themselves memorable by winning a school-record eight straight Pac-12 games. But the fans base’s disappointment in Utah’s loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game as a No. 5-ranked team has lingered for three weeks now. The lasting impression of this team will be shaped by what happens at the Alamodome, where the Utes will face a road environment and an iconic opponent.

That last part works in their favor, actually. Texas’ brand name gives Utah incentive to perform well on a semi-big stage, more so than any other Big 12 opponent the No. 12 Utes could have drawn in their biggest bowl opportunity of the program’s Pac-12 era. A victory likely would produce a final ranking in the top 10 and reward the Utes for a remarkable season, even if they didn’t fulfill all of their ambitions.

“That would mean a lot to our program, bottom line, to finish out in the top 10,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday. “That’s definitely something in the forefront of our guys’ minds.”

Winning a bowl game would distinguish this group from the 2018 team that also won a Pac-12 South championship, but lost its last two games for the first time in 22 seasons.

After the loss to Oregon, “The first couple days were a little rough, just coming to the realization that we lost and we weren't able to do the things we were looking to do,” said tight end Brant Kuithe. “But after that, the main focus is we have one more game left and we've got to finish out strong.”

The Utes have one last shot on the final day of 2019. What's interesting is how the matchup fits into the context of 2020.

With the defense regrouping next season after losing eight starters, including seven likely NFL draftees, much more will be expected or even demanded of Utah's offense. That will be true Tuesday, when the Utes' makeshift secondary must deal with Texas' prolific passing offense and Utah's offense should be able to exploit the Longhorn defense.

The burden is on Utah's offensive line to play better than it did against Oregon and maximize the last game for senior quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss. The linemen didn't protect Huntley well or consistently open holes for Moss in what All-Pac-12 left tackle Darrin Paulo labeled “a very uncharacteristic game, of not just the offensive line, but everyone with the team.”

Paulo added, “We've got to come out with a more nasty attitude, what we're used to doing.”

Utah’s defense also wants to respond from that 37-15 defeat, although the secondary will be missing stars Julian Blackmon, who was injured vs. Oregon, and Jaylon Johnson, who opted out of the Alamo Bowl for the sake of his NFL future. “That Oregon game was not us,” senior linebacker Francis Bernard said. “It’s not who we are, what we’ve established this whole season. We’re excited to have one more shot to prove what kind of defense we are — not only the defense, but what kind of team we are.”

Texas' offense, having scored 38 points in a September loss to LSU, is all the Utes could want, in terms of testing themselves. The Longhorns are taking this bowl game as seriously as Utah always does, with receivers Collin Johnson and Devin Durvernay and safety Brandon Jones resisting the choice of sitting out to prepare for their NFL careers.

“I think that’s really cool in today’s environment for those guys to go out there one last time for their brothers,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “I think it speaks to the fellowship, the relationships that are in that locker room, as well. They certainly don’t want to let anybody down.”

Utah’s seniors feel the same way, with one last showcase.

UTAH VS. TEXAS

At the Alamodome, San Antonio.

Kickoff: Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. MST.

TV: ESPN.

Radio: ESPN 700.

Records: Utah 11-2 (8-1 Pac-12); Texas 7-5 (5-4 Big 12).

Series history: Texas leads, 1-0..

Last meeting: Texas 21, Utah 12 (1982).

About the Utes: Utah is 5-1 in bowl games as a Pac-12 member, including a 30-14 win over the Big 12′s West Virginia in the 2017 Heart of Dallas Bowl. … Zack Moss has rushed for 1,359 yards and needs 161 yards to break John White’s school season record, set in 2011. … The 2019 Utes have posted the third-most wins in school history and can equal the win total of the 2004 team (12-0). … Utah’s 2020 season opener is in September vs. BYU at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

About the Longhorns: Texas failed to qualify for a bowl game in 2016, but the team’s juniors and seniors are targeting a third straight bowl win. The Longhorns beat Missouri (33-16) in the 2017 Texas Bowl and the 2018 team defeated Georgia (28-21) in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day. … Texas’ last Alamo Bowl appearance came in a 30-7 loss to Oregon in 2013. That was the last game for former coach Mack Brown, who’s now at North Carolina.

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