NEW ORLEANS — It doesn't get any sweeter than this for the Utah Utes.

Besides winning the 75th anniversary Sugar Bowl, Friday night's 31-17 win over Alabama in the Louisiana Superdome capped a 13-0 season for the Utes. They finished the season as the only undefeated team in the nation.

"This is the best," said quarterback Brian Johnson. "We're the best team in the country."

Johnson was named the game's Most Outstanding Player after completing 27-of-41 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns.

"All we heard is how they were the better team. It was all about Alabama," he added. "Nobody thought we could do it. The national pundits, no one. We believed in ourselves."

In defeating the heavily favored Crimson Tide, the Utes extended two of college football's longest active winning streaks. They've now won 14 consecutive games overall dating back to last season and extended their run of bowl victories to eight straight.

"I love coaching these guys," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "It's been a storybook season."

One, he believes, that is worthy of national championship consideration.

"I think so," said Whittingham. "But it's not up to me."

The Utes' second successful Bowl Championship Series appearance in five years led to a postgame celebration on the field of the massive facility. Thousands of Utah fans cheered from the stands.

"This feels great. It's a dream come true. We could not ask for anything else," said wide receiver Bradon Godfrey. "I think we gained some respect for our conference, and this is quite an accomplishment for the Mountain West Conference. No one gave us a chance."

The underdogs, however, found a way to get it done.

"I have to give a lot of credit to the Utah team," said Alabama coach Nick Saban. "They played an outstanding game."

Defense played a big role, with the Utes recording eight sacks and holding run-oriented Alabama to just 31 yards on the ground in defensive coordinator Gary Andersen's final game before he begins full-time service as Utah State's head coach. Robert Johnson had two interceptions.

"An unbelievable victory. It's the best team I've ever been around in my life," said Andersen. "This crew, the way they've won football games, is unbelievable."

The Tide turned a bit on the first play of the second half. That's when Brian Johnson fumbled the ball on a team sack by Alabama and it was recovered on the Utah 30 by defensive end Bobby Greenwood. It took just over three minutes for the Crimson Tide to cash in, scoring a touchdown on a 4-yard toss from John Parker Wilson to Glen Coffee.

With their lead cut to 21-17, the Utes retaliated when they got the ball back. Brian Johnson and David Reed teamed for a 28-yard TD pass to match Alabama's score.

This time, the 11-point gap held firm. In fact, Utah's lead even grew.

The Utes added a 28-yard field goal by Louie Sakoda with 2:49 remaining. The kick allowed them to match Florida's output in the SEC title game for the most points allowed by Alabama this season.

Utah jumped out to a 21-0 advantage in the first quarter.

After forcing Alabama to punt on the game's initial series, the Utes used a no-huddle offense and five consecutive completions by Johnson to take an early lead. A 7-yard scoring strike to Brent Casteel, who dove into the end zone near the left sideline, capped off a sequence that included receptions by Jereme Brooks, Darrell Mack, Bradon Godfrey and Freddie Brown, who finished the game with 12 catches for 125 yards.

"We practice no-huddle quite a bit and obviously we work it every week," said Brown. "I feel like we're one of the best two-minute teams in the country, if not the best."

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig acknowledged it was great.

"Brian did a great job. We know we are good at it," said Ludwig. "And we know this, (Alabama) is sophisticated on defense and we could take their coaches out of the play a little bit. Our guys own that drill. So that was great, great stuff. We had them on their heels a little bit."

The drive, however, almost didn't happen. Casteel misjudged the game's first punt and the ball bounced into the air. Fortunately for Utah, it landed in the hands of Utah teammate R.J. Rice and the Utes took over at their own 32.

Leading 7-0 after Sakoda added the PAT, Utah's defense thwarted Alabama's ensuing possession. Safety Robert Johnson intercepted a pass by Wilson and returned it the Crimson Tide 32, where the Utes embarked upon another five-play march into the end zone.

This one, though, wasn't as sharp. Only two plays made positive yardage — a 30-yard, third-down pass from Brian Johnson to Reed and a 2-yard touchdown run by Matt Asiata.

The latter was followed by another exchange of success by the Utes before the quarter was complete. A third-down sack of Wilson by linebacker Kepa Gaison forced the Crimson Tide to punt the ball away.

Utah responded with its third straight scoring drive. The Utes picked up three first downs on a seven-play series that covered 65 yards and took only 1:17 off the clock. Bradon Godfrey scored the touchdown off an 18-yard throw from Brian Johnson.

When the quarter was finished, Utah held wide edges in total offense (150-43) and first downs (9-4). The Utes finalized their early dominance with an 11-yard sack of Wilson by Kenape Eliapo on the final play.

That forced Alabama to attempt a 52-yard field goal on the opening play of the second quarter, and Leigh Tiffin connected to put the Crimson Tide on the board. They cut the deficit again almost 9 1/2 minutes later when Javier Arenas returned a Utah punt 73 yards for a touchdown. Tiffin followed with the extra point, closing the gap to 21-10.

The halftime margin could have been closer, but a 47-yard field goal attempt by Tiffin earlier in the quarter was wide left. He also missed a 49-yarder in the third quarter.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com