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Recapping the 2007 Utah Football Season - the lead up to the 2008 Sugar Bowl team

Utah v Texas Christan University

The current Utah football team is going through spring football in preparation for the 2018-19 football season, one with a lot of promise. This coming season is the 10 year anniversary of the 2008-09 Utah football team that went 13-0 and ended up winning the Sugar Bowl over Alabama. Before we really start to dive into that season, as we’ll be doing over the coming weeks and beyond, I wanted to take a look at the 2007 team. I believe so much of the 2008 team’s success was based off of what happened in 2007.

Going into the 2007 season, hopes were sky high for the Utes. They had a couple of Pac-10 teams on the schedule with Oregon State and UCLA, as well as the Big East’s Louisville Cardinals. Combine that with the fact that Utah had Brian Johnson returning to the starting lineup at QB, after rehabing his knee during the 2006 season, fans couldn’t wait to have their QB back. Utah was welcoming in Matt Asiata, a prized recruit out of Snow College, and of course, Utah’s defense has been traditionally great, especially in the Mountain West, so they had a lot of pieces to be excited about. The pieces really seemed to fall into place for Utah to have a great season on both sides of the ball. Things changed drastically in the first half of the season opening game against Oregon State in Corvallis.

It was early in the game between the Beavers and the Utes, just a handful of seasons before they were conference mates, and JC All-American Matt Asiata was looking good in his debut. He had 16 carries on 4 carries, but that 4th carry is when his debut season ended with a nasty broken leg, on a pretty good run too if I remember correctly. Not only was his leg broken, but fans hearts were broken, beause the anticipation of Asiata was building into a fever pitch before the season kicked off. It was a defensive battle in that first half between the two teams, but Utah QB Brian Johnson got into a groove late in the half and hit Brent Casteel for a 36 yard touchdown after a Sean Smith INT in Oregon State territory. Not long after that, on a pretty routine option play, Johnson got hit by an OSU defender, went to the turf, and Utah fan’s hearts sunk even further. Oh no, our prized QB was back on the turf, after a season of waiting for him to return. Backup QB, and OU transfer Tommy Grady came in and couldn’t get the Utes back in the endzone after going 9 of 24 on the game for 59 yards. The Utes dropped that one 24-7

The following week, it didn’t get much better against the Air Force Academy in the home opener. The Utes lost one of their top playmakers on offense, after a dirty tackle by an AFA defender took out Brent Casteel’s knee, blowing up his ACL and ending his season. However, late in the game Utah had a chance to tie and force overtime, when Darryl Poston missed the open hole on the six inch line that would have allowed him to run in for a touchdown to bring the game to within a two point converstion of being tied. The Utes were 0-2, and things were looking bleek.

Then in came No. 11 UCLA, and fans were thinking 0-3 was inevitable, but Tommy Grady with 246 yards and 3 touchdowns, plus the debut of Darrell Mack (107 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown) carried the Utes. You know what, just check out this quick blurb that’s in the season recap press guide:

SALT LAKE CITY—Utah dominated every phase of the game, stunning No. 11 UCLA, 44-6. Tommy Grady passed for a career-high 246 yards and three touchdowns – two to first-time starting running back Darrell Mack. Mack had his best game ever – and the best game by a Ute back this year – rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown. In his first start, free safety Robert Johnson grabbed two interceptions, broke up a pass and forced a fumble into the

end zone for a touchback. Johnson’s strip prevented the Bruins from closing to within three points and Utah’s offense took advantage by scoring on the change of possession to take a 24-6 lead. Yet another first-time starter, Koa Misi, led Utah with eight tackles and two of Utah’s five total sacks. Kicker Louie Sakoda scored 14 points, by making all three field goal attempts and all five PATs. Sakoda’s field goals were from 47, 45 and 44 yards out. Utah surprised the Bruins by playing true freshman Corbin Louks at quarterback in certain situations. Louks threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to true freshman tight end Dallin Rogers in the third quarter.

So in that game, Mack, Robert Johnson and Koa Misi all got their first starts for the Utes. RoJo really burst onto the stage single handedly ending three possessions for the Bruins. That game was a ton of fun.

Then the trip to Vegas happened the next week. We thought the Utes were back on track, oh boy, were we wrong. Again, I need to defer to the recap by the Utah AD, it’s painful but paints the picture:

LAS VEGAS—Utah failed to score for the first time in 14 years – falling to UNLV 27-0. Utah, which had not lost to the Rebels since 1979, trailed 13-0 after three quarters. UNLV scored twice in the fourth to put the game out of reach. Tommy Grady started the game but gave way to Brian Johnson in the second half. Johnson, making his first appearance since injuring his throwing shoulder in the first game of the season, moved the team to the 1-yard line on his first series but couldn’t score on fourth and goal. An incomplete pass on the next offensive drive stopped Utah on fourth and one at the UNLV 30- yard line. Darrell Mack was Utah’s lone offensive bright spot, rushing for 89 yards. Las Vegas native Stevenson Sylvester had a career-high 14 tackles (2.5 for a loss).

Yeah, it was a bad night in Vegas. When BJ came in in the second half, the large Utah crowd cheered, because the wounded warrior was back, but he couldn’t muster enough to help drag the Utes to the win. Frank Summers ran all over the Utes that game with 190 yards and a pair of scores. Frankly, walking back to my car after the game, I wondered if the Whittingham era, in it’s 3rd season, was going to come to an end, due to the 1-3 start, with 2 lossed to MWC teams, one of which was UNLV of all teams. Not to mention, Brian Johnson was playing with one arm, and not the good arm. It was a time of questions about the Utah football program. That thought would quickly fade as one of the best streaks in Utah football history was about to begin.

Utah won 8 of their next 9 games on the season (of course, 13+ more would come over the span of the next season-plus). A couple highlights really stand out. First up, Utah at Louisville. The Cardinals had a Heisman hopeful with Brian Brohm, and he was putting up a lot of yards and points. Utah jumped out to a 27-7 lead at halftime, really putting the fans back east on notice. Brian Johnson, with a bad arm, and a step slower than his freshman year because of his knee, tore Louisville apart with 24-of-31 passing for 312 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for a touchdown. Darrell Mack rushed for a career- high 163 yards and continued to write his way into Utah’s history books. Utah had 582 yards on the game. That was more than double the output Utah had in the previous game against Utah State. Talk about the flipping of the script a little bit.

(Not the best quality on this video, and the music, is, uh, not the best either, but still fun to watch)

The next big win was over TCU, 27-20, in a defensive battle. I mean, it wasn’t pretty offensive football at all. Utah had 227 total yards while TCU had 285. Utah welcomed freshman Andy Dalton to college football by picking him off four times, including Martail Burnett’s pick six... yeah, Burnett was a defensive end, for those who don’t remember him. Receiver Marquis Wilson, the local from Juan Diego High School, had a career day with 73 yards and a touchdown, so he and Mack (100 yards again) were some offensive highlights.

The one win that people remember fondly, mostly because of the memes that have spawned out of it, was the Wyoming game. Joe Glenn, the former Wyoming head coach, got a bit over confident and during a meeting with some boosters, that some media was at, he guaranteed a win over the Utes in SLC. Well, that news got back to Kyle Whittingham, and he didn’t love it that much. He didn’t like it enough that he went up 40-0 on Wyoming before halftime. And, to add insult to injury, Coach Whitt decided to go for an onside kick after scoring a again early in the second half, which Glenn didn’t take kindly to and gave Whitt the ole one finger salute from the sideline. Needless to say, it was pure domination. Utah had 505 yards of offense, while Wyoming had 122 total yards and five turnovers.

Utah’s last loss on this season came in the finale against BYU. This game was one of the games that the Cougars got lucky and pulled out the win. A couple of questionable late hit / PI calls hurt the Utes, but after taking the lead 10-9, Utah had BYU at 4th and 18 deep in BYU territory, when Brice McCain, bless his heart, made a bad read and let Austin Collie slide behind him. The rest is history at that point.

Utah would go on and beat a tough Navy team in the Poinsettia Bowl to finish 9-4 on the season. Considering the team started 1-3, that’s one heck of a way to wrap things up. The adversity that this team went through, especially with so many players coming back the following season, like BJ, Casteel, Asiata, Mack, Freddie Brown, Stevenson Sylvester, Sean Smith, Brice McCain, so many names, really helped unify and harden the core of players they had. I’m not sure if 2008 happens the way it happens, especially pulling out the close games, if 2007 wasn’t such a trying season. It’s fun to look back on that 2007 season and see some of the names that were just ready to blow up the next.

Here’s how some post season accolades went, first some national honors:

King Louie Sakoda, P/K, Jr.

FWAA First-Team All-American (Punter) First-Team All-American (Punter) Second-Team All-American (Punter) First-Team All-American (Place Kicker)

Phil Steele Second-Team All-American (Place Kicker)

College Football News Second-Team All-American (Kicker and Punter)

Paul Kruger, DL, Fr. First-Team Redshirt Freshman All-American Sporting News Second-Team Freshman All-American Second-Team Freshman All-American

Derrek Richards, PR, Sr.

College Football News Second-Team All-American (Punt Returner)

Conference wise, it was actually pretty slim for the Utes:

First Team

Martail Burnett, DL, Sr.

Steve Tate, DB, Sr.

Louie Sakoda, P, Jr. (MWC Special Teams Player of the Year)

Second Team

Darrell Mack, RB, Jr.

Zane Beadles, OL, So.

Robert Conley, OL, Jr.

Gabe Long, DL, Sr.

Brice McCain, DB, Jr.

Louie Sakoda, PK, Jr.

Derrek Richards, RET, Sr.

Honorable Mention

Robert Johnson, DB, So.

Paul Kruger, DL, Fr.

Derrek Richards, WR, Sr.

Stevenson Sylvester, LB, So.

Statisticaly, it was an interesting team to look back at. The Utes were No. 1 in the nation in pass efficiency defense, No. 5 in the nation in scoring defense, and No. 5 in the naiton in opponent 3rd down percentage. Utah’s defense had to do what they’ve always done, and that’s keep things together, especially with Brian Johnson’s shoulder being as bad as it was that season. Brian kept the boat afloat, and did one of the most masterful jobs managing a team that I can recall. BJ had a 68.5% completion percentage while throwing for 1160 yards, 8 touchdowns and 5 INTs... so the dude wasn’t really chucking it downfield. Darrell Mack ended up with 1126 yards and 6 touchdowns, and really emerged as a force out of the backfield, like so many Utah running backs before him, and now since.

It was a heartening season, and one that was kind of a precurser for seasons to come, with the grind out style and just beating the opponent up. I’ll hold them season in fond memory, especially for the ride it set up, that we’ll be covering more in the weeks and months to come.