August 14, 2007

2001 Las Vegas Bowl - Utah vs. USC

HOW IS IT GREAT? This game is remembered as the time when Utah beat a USC team that featured coaches Pete Carroll and Norm Chow, and future NFL Pro-Bowlers Carson Palmer and Troy Polamalu. Although the Trojans weren't world-beaters during 2001, they did win five of their last six games to finish the season 6-5, 5-3. With these coaches and players, they went on to win the Pac-10 Championship in 2002, and Palmer won the Heisman Trophy that year as well.

Ten points was all Utah needed to win this game. But it wasn't as if USC completely shut down the Ute offense. RB Adam Tate rushed for 103 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries and RB Damean Hunter (game MVP) added another 94 yards on 17 carries. The team rushed for a grand total of 222 yards. Even QB Lance Rice had himself a solid game after enduring much public criticism for his role in a key loss to AFA weeks earlier. He threw only one interception and was sacked only once against USC. He was especially effective during Utah's last drive to run down the final 5:43 and preserve the win. That drive included a crucial completion on 3rd-and-14 from the Utah 9-yard line.

But it was Utah's defense that should be credited for the victory. They held Carson Palmer to a mere 150 yards passing and allowed the Trojans only one single rushing yard total. The Utes also sacked Palmer five time, twice by Sheldon Deckart.

As a fan of low-scoring defensive battles, this was one of the most enjoyable Utah games I have ever watched. It was also great to see Ron McBride get this win after Utah lost some disappointing games during the season.

2007 RANKING: #16. This game had a lot in common with yesterday's feature (Fresno St. '99). Both were played in the Las Vegas Bowl. Both were closely-fought games and both capped off good - but not quite great - seasons. I give this victory the edge, however, because of what USC would go on to do in the following seasons. USC has gone to a bowl game every season since 2001, but by the time they would lose another one (vs. Texas, 2006 Rose Bowl), they would win 2.5 National Championships, and 3.5 Pac-10 Titles.

WHAT THE PRESS HAD TO SAY:

HAPPY ULETIDE
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Utes Start Strong -- End Even Stronger
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By Linda Hamilton
Deseret News
December 26, 2001

LAS VEGAS — When things were at their darkest, when no one wanted to believe, when even ardent fans stayed home for Christmas rather than following Utah's football team to its bowl game in Las Vegas, that's when the Utes were at their best.

They started strong and finished stronger at their home-away-from-home, Sam Boyd Stadium, in a 10-6 victory over a Southern Cal team that had just won four straight including a shutout over rival UCLA.

The football off-season will be so much brighter now with maybe Ron McBride's best bowl victory. "This is probably the sweetest one because we finished on a negative, and everybody was talking about how bad we were," said the Ute coach, who just finished his 12th season.

"This could rank with any of them because we needed it. We were able to finish in the fourth quarter against a fine USC team. This was probably as good as it gets."

Especially with national ABC-TV and ESPN Radio audiences. Anybody who was tuned into football Tuesday afternoon was tuned into this game and saw Utah's devastating defense blitzing like never before, drilling USC junior quarterback Carson Palmer with two early sacks that left the school's No. 3 career passer wondering so much he threw for just 150 yards. "The ability for us to get to the quarterback gave us huge momentum," said Utah defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham.

After those two hard sacks, by Sheldon Deckart and Arnold Parker, "The quarterback started looking around a little bit," said McBride.

"It was a big part of our game plan to come out and set the pace, set the tone early," said Deckart, who later added a half-sack. "Our defensive coordinator put together another scheme that we were able to outplay the offense that we were playing against. He put a few extra blitzes in. We played some blitzes that they hadn't seen out of us."

"It felt great to knock them off and just rejoice in our win," said Deckart, who added that some of Utah's four sacks were "coverage sacks" because the defensive backs kept SC's speedy receivers checkmated. It was also "just the intensity that our D front was playing with, getting their offensive linemen disoriented."

The Trojans had 151 total-offense yards in the game. That's right: one net yard rushing by the school once known as Tailback U.

Ute tailbacks Adam Tate (103 yards and a touchdown) and Dameon Hunter (94 yards and the game's MVP trophy), both Californians who played their junior-college ball under USC's nose, pounded away with the ball-possession game that Trojan coach Pete Carroll had feared. The Utes held the ball for 38:01 minutes, 16 seconds less than their season-best, which also came on this field against UNLV. Utah has won four straight games here over the past three seasons.

"They're horses," said quarterback Lance Rice. "We just get on their backs and ride them to victory."

In some ways the best part of all, Rice was at his career zenith, especially when he threaded a 20-yard third-and-14 pass from Utah's 9-yard line with 3:30 left in the game to tight end Mike Richardson as Utah once again tried to run out the clock on a win.

"We needed first downs," said McBride. "We could not punt."

"Lance made an excellent pass," said Richardson, who caught two touchdown passes the last time he was on this field. "A fat old lineman could have caught that pass," said the former offensive guard and center. "They were leaving me open over the middle all day. I mentioned it to Lance, he saw it and was confident and made a great throw, right on the money. I was just like, 'Oh, well there it is.'"

Still, Richardson said the key to the win was, "Our defense making so many sacks. Come on, six points on the board? That's a heckuva defense. Our offensive line and our defensive lines are some of the strongest, stoutest guys I've ever played with or against. I was pretty confident that things were going to end up the way they did."

Rice agreed. "The defense, they didn't give an inch, except that one drive to start the second half. They're the best defense in the country, I think."

With that third-down pass — maybe the best Rice has thrown — and a 16-yard third-and-4 shotgun-draw run by Tate with about 2 1/2 minutes left followed by a third first-down conversion, the Utes were able to hold onto a win the way they couldn't at BYU and Air Force in their last two losses. This time, they managed the clock and made the plays.

Tate's thought during his third-and-5 play was, "that I didn't want to go home to California with a loss to USC. I wanted to be able to go home and hold my head up with pride and tell all the people that I play for Utah and we beat Southern California. This game was big. It just makes our whole team feel good."

Tate scored Utah's only touchdown with 5:26 left in the first quarter on a 3-yard run. Ryan Kaneshiro topped it off with a PAT kick. With less than two minutes left in the first half, Rice was hurried and threw an incomplete pass, but Utah was called for an illegal receiver downfield. Inexplicably, USC declined the penalty on second down-and-9, and Hunter ran 11 yards on the next play. Two plays later, Kaneshiro kicked a 26-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead.

Southern Cal's first drive after intermission went 80 yards in 12 plays for a 2-yard TD run by Sunny Byrd, but the kick was wide. USC did little with a Ute fumble and interception, playing the final 19 minutes with waning success.

"We haven't finished sometimes this year. Today we finished," said McBride. "We wouldn't be denied."

"This was basically our last chance to redeem ourselves," said Tate, "and we all stuck together and got it done."

Utah is 8-4 a season after going 4-7 when it was supposed to win the Mountain West Conference. The Trojans finished 6-6 after starting their season 1-5.

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