*This post is part of a week long series being sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.*
2004 gets the nod for me as a team on the whole, because they were dominant all year and it was new and exciting being a fan and student of Utah to watch them climb up the polls. There was some minor buzz for Utah prior to the season since they were ranked in the top 20 that year in the preseason which was the first time in a long time, if not ever. The opening game was against Texas A&M and it was still a time when they were considered a solid Big XII team as they went 7-5 and earned a Cotton Bowl berth.
The team was so exciting to watch the Heisman finalist QB Alex Smith who only was the starter due to an injury to QB Brett Elliot in the 2003 opener against Texas A&M and Smith never looked back. He was not the fastest runner but he lead Urban Meyers spread option offense to perfection. He was able to run the read option the same every time which made defenses mad when he would pitch it or run it with ease while gaining a good chunk of yards every time. To me Alex Smith has been the best quarterback to run any spread offense, including what Urban Meyer has done at Florida, I could be wrong but I think Meyer said as much. Smith was able to do both things very well, whereas Florida's Chris Leak was more of a passer, and Tim Tebow was more of a run option quarterback, but Smith was able to do both equally well.
Steve Savoy and Parris Warren were some great wide receivers and watching them do the hook and ladder play in my corner of the end zone at the 2004 Fiesta Bowl was just plain awesome, because it was at the end of the game and the Utes were just showing off. RB Quinton Ganther and Marty Johnson were able to put up big numbers running the ball, and within the famed play that keeps getting asked to be called even to this day: "The Shovel Pass." The shovel pass was so effective and it took the right combination of quarterback, line, and back to get it right, and the play was finally called at least once in the 2008 Utah season. The defensive backfield was so fun to watch with Eric Weddle and Morgan Scalley harassing wide outs, but the best part was when Morgan Scalley would be blitzing and then the PA announcer say it was Weddle who got the sack and Scalley would be visibly upset about not getting credit from the PA guy, very funny.
The game that nearly ruined the season was an early season matchup against pesky Air Force. I remember this game vividly because I played for the University of Utah water polo club and we happened to be out of town on a tournament at the Air Force Academy. We were lucky enough to have a break between games when this game was on and we watched it in the student union or the equivalent to that at the Academy. In the back of the room was about 15 Ute fans wearing our team warmups and we stood out like a soar thumb. To make things worse Air Force had an early lead in the game and we got a few things shouted our way, friendly of course. Utah was down 14-0 early on and we were all worried, but then the offense took off and Utah ran off 35 straight points to take the win.
Then there was the New Mexico game which was the next game after the Air Force game and it was stressful as well. The game was the second lowest scoring game of the season, and New Mexico has always given Utes a tough time. Even though Utah won it was not a satisfying win for a team that was looking to make a run at a BCS bowl game. Luckily for Utah other teams lost so they moved up to the ten spot after that sub par win.
Going to the home games were really an event and getting there early was a key to having a good time, because that is when the scoring would happen. Arriving late meant missing the scoring opportunities and missing the starters. Routinely the backups would be in the games for most of the fourth quarter, and in some games they would be in late in the third quarter.
There was a lot of talk from that season from people who said Utah was beating up on bad teams even though they beat three teams from a BCS league, and rolled through everyone. Then Utah had the chance to show a wider audience when the Utes were to play Wyoming on ABC regional for the west coast game. Most of the games were on local KJZZ with a few on ESPN. However, due to weather the lights went out at War Memorial Stadium, and instead of waiting for the power to go back on the local affiliate here in Utah decided to show one of the Harry Potter games. Due to some rule once that movie started the network could not switch over to the game, so even though other parts of the west coast saw the game about an hour into the scheduled time the local Utah fans were forced to listen to the radio to follow the game, or not pay attention and watch the game on tape once it was nearly over.
The BYU game was a big deal because it was a $20 million game and in reality more important then the Fiesta Bowl game itself, because had Utah lost they would have been on the line with prior non-BCS teams who could not cut it. Even worse the Utes would have fallen all the way down to the Liberty Bowl, the opponent would have been a solid Louisville team but that is not the same as going to a big money bowl game.
That BYU game was a standing room only, and even though the Cougars were down that year a lot of Utah fans were nervous for this game. BYU was the big rival and always perceived as the better program with their string of WAC titles and their 1984 national title, where Utah's best year was 1994 when they finished in the top 10. The game was a blowout and very satisfying to crush your rival, but the game was actually close at the half with Utah only up 21-14. The big play of the game that changed the outcome was when BYU called a trick play which had John Beck toss the ball to freshman wide receiver stud Austin Collie which then had him throw the ball in the end zone. At the time Utah was up 31-21 and BYU was just inside Ute territory and the pass was picked off by Eric Weddle in the end zone. That was the play that sealed the win as BYU did not score the rest of the game.
The Fiesta Bowl was a game I was lucky enough to attend was amazing. Sun Devil stadium was essentially a Utah home game and then some with 55,000 plus fans in the stadium which is about 10,000 more then what Rice-Eccles holds. The game started off a bit slow for what Utah was accustomed to as they did not score until the end of the first quarter. The best part of the game was that in my section of Utah fans was a single Pitt fan who was going all crazy saying that Pitt was going to roll Utah, but that was not the case.
Even when Utah was obviously in control being up 21-0 that guy was still running his mouth about saying how Pitt was going to come back and beat Utah. The guy eventually gave Utah credit at the end of the game, but he might have had a little bit too much to drink, but he did walk up and down the Ute fan section and claimed Utah the superior team.
The game was just like a regular season game once the second half picked up with the offense clicking, and that for most of the fourth quarter freshman QB Brian Johnson was able to play a good amount in the Fiesta Bowl. Hanging out after the game waiting for the trophy presentation many fans tried to rush the field and climb the fence to rush the field. The reason fans were not allowed was that the Arizona Cardinals had a game in the next few days, and one fan was tazered, which was pretty awesome.
This team was just fun to watch and that they were able to move into the top six was amazing, and more difficult then the current rule that allows non-BCS teams to be ranked 12th to earn an automatic bid. The only downside was that Oklahoma war ran out of the Orange Bowl against USC, and I am still confident to this day that Utah could have scored more then 13 points. Also, with Auburn being undefeated and not able to play another undefeated team in Utah to at least pair of comparable teams together.
Even with the feeling that Utah did not get a chance to really prove themselves the entire season it was a great ride to make it to the Fiesta Bowl, and to attend that game was just amazing.
Go ahead and share about your favorite team in the comments.