Kragthorpe: Surprisingly, Utes were better team
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

SAN FRANCISCO - Something that was widely believed going into Thursday's Emerald Bowl was absolutely true: One of the participants was a team that nobody should want to play at this time of year.

Except it was not Georgia Tech, after all.

Utah's Utes were the guys leaving all kinds of Rambling Wreckage at SBC Park in what should stand as the most stunning performance of this bowl season. The Utes' 38-10 victory was their fifth straight bowl win under three different coaches in a seven-year stretch, and this was the most impressive of them all.

"That was a quality football team we beat out there," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, and he was right. The only trouble was, the Utes were so dominant in the second half that they made the Yellow Jackets look like just another Pittsburgh, last season's Fiesta Bowl opponent.

These guys are good. The Utes were just much, much better Thursday. They mauled a team that had beaten Auburn and Miami this season, besides hammering its last two bowl opponents.

Utah's offense registered 550 total yards against a defense that had never allowed 400 all season, playing in the talented Atlantic Coast Conference. "I really don't think the ACC has seen a passing attack like [Utah's]," said receiver Travis LaTendresse, who caught 16 passes for 214 yards and four touchdowns.

LaTendresse produced an SBC Park showing that ranks up there with anything Barry Bonds has done lately. He even crashed into the left-field wall after making a touchdown catch, and when's the last time Bonds did that?

Facing quarterback Brett Ratliff - whose nickname, naturally, is "Rat" - the Tech defenders looked baffled, like they were caught in a laboratory maze. They never solved offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig's scheme, even though Tech coach Chan Gailey said the Utes "didn't do anything fancy or unusual or new."

They just did it well, repeatedly.

So what are we to think of these 7-5 Utes? Whittingham has some suggestions.

Remembering four losses in five weeks, he said, "I have never been around a group of players that has demonstrated as much guts, courage, resiliency. . . . Everybody was ready to stick a fork in us. All the media, all the critics. Like Grandma always says, 'Piss on 'em.' "

Uh, can I change into a rainsuit?

When I said the Utes would have trouble topping 20 points against the Yellow Jacket defense, I was talking about the first half. Really, I was not the only one who underestimated Utah's chances against Georgia Tech, which came into this game as a solid favorite. The lesson: Motivation means everything in December.

"You could tell that they didn't want to be here," said Utah defensive back Eric Weddle.

The Utes? Another story. They obviously were not willing to settle for beating Brigham Young and then just playing respectably in a bowl game.

"We had a lot to prove," LaTendresse said.

After so many second-half fades that either turned potential wins into losses or made them closer than necessary, the Utes buried Georgia Tech. They showed signs of wobbling in the middle two quarters, only to seize the game as the fourth quarter unfolded.

"We put this opponent away," Whittingham said.

The Utes did it on both sides of the ball, holding a team that had scored 103 points in its last two bowl games to 10 points. A soggy field seemed to hurt Tech quarterback Reggie Ball and running back P.J. Daniels much more than it affected the Utes, who were not bothered by anything.

If not for Boston College's escape Wednesday against Boise State, Utah now would have the country's longest active winning streak in bowl games. After everything Whittingham went through in his first year as head coach, he maintained the Utes' ability to properly finish a season.

Getting into a bowl game is nice, but "winning it is the objective," Whittingham said. "Our guys understand that."

Maybe that's something else they learned from Grandma.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com