Swat!

SAN FRANCISCO-The U football team closed out an up-and-down 2005 season on a high note Dec. 29, as the Utes trounced No. 24 Georgia Tech 38-10 in the Emerald Bowl.

“Did I expect us to play well? Yes, I did,” Ute head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Did I expect us to win 38-10? No, I didn’t.”

Even though the Utes (7-5) came into the game a seven-point underdog, the outcome was never really in doubt. Georgia Tech (7-5) came in with a vaunted defense, a unit that had shut down then-No. 9 Miami at the Orange Bowl only a few weeks prior.

But in his second NCAA start, Ute quarterback Brett Ratliff proved that the strong showing in the U’s win over BYU in November was no fluke. The junior tied a school bowl record and set an Emerald Bowl record, throwing four touchdown passes on 381 passing yards. Ratliff completed 30 of his 41 passes, while only throwing one interception.

“When the whole offense plays great, it makes me look good,” Ratliff said.

One player in particular who helped Ratliff look good was the game’s Offensive Most Valuable Player, Travis LaTendresse. The sixth-year senior and Bay Area native, playing in front of nearly 100 family and friends, hauled in an Emerald Bowl-record 16 receptions for 214 yards and four touchdowns, three of which came in the first 15:30 of the game. The four TD grabs tied an NCAA bowl record for touchdown receptions in one game.

“(Ute offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig) told me I’d have some opportunities today,” LaTendresse said. “All the credit goes to the offensive line and (Ratliff). We were all able to get on the same page.”

The Ratliff-LaTendresse connection started off in a hurry on the foggy afternoon. After marching down the field on the opening drive, LaTendresse got open over the middle and hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass only two and a half minutes into the game. Dan Beardall hit the upright on the point-after attempt, but the Utes still gained the early 6-0 lead.

The two teams exchanged punts, and then the Jackets started to get things going offensively. Behind some big runs by senior tailback P.J. Daniels, Tech drove 58 yards down to the Ute 32-yard line. But on a fourth-and-two, quarterback Reggie Ball slipped on the slick natural grass field and turned the ball over to the Utes on downs.

The U capitalized and drove right down the field, capping off the drive on a 23-yard strike from Ratliff to LaTendresse on a nearly carbon-copy play as the first TD.

Once again, the Jackets moved the ball down the field, but could not capitalize.

With the ball spotted at the 21-yard line, Ball dropped back to pass, but did not see Ute safety Steve Tate lurking over the middle. Tate picked off Ball’s pass and returned it 45 yards to the Georgia Tech 40.

Ratliff and LaTendresse took over from there, quickly getting a 25-yard touchdown and a 20-0 lead only 30 seconds into the second quarter.

The Jackets could not do anything to slow down the Ute offensive attack, as the U racked up 550 yards of total offense, while throwing many different formations at the Tech defense.

“When you play them, you have to get ready for a ton of stuff,” Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey said. “You can’t spend a lot of time on any one thing. Sometimes when you don’t spend a lot of time on one thing, it gets you. And it got us.”

Trailing 20-0, the Jackets finally started to show signs of life after picking off an Eric Weddle pass in the end zone on a busted Ute trick play.

Ball drove Tech down the field and got the team on the scoreboard with a 31-yard touchdown pass to tight end George Cooper.

After stopping Utah late in the half, the Jackets got the ball back again on their own 23 with only 16 seconds left. Instead of downing it and heading into the locker room down 13, Ball heaved a Hail Mary down the sideline in an attempt to snatch all the momentum at the end of the half. It worked, as Damarius Bilbo got free for a 63-yard reception down to Utah’s 12-yard line. Tech kicked a field goal and went into the second half only down 10.

“It was a fluke play that never happens to a Utah defense,” Weddle said. “(Bilbo) just got behind us.”

The momentum was short lived for Georgia Tech, which would not score again, as the Utes added a Beardall field goal in the third quarter and touchdowns by LaTendresse and Quinton Ganther in the fourth to seal the program’s fifth straight bowl victory.

Weddle was named the game’s Defensive Most Valuable Player, after keeping All-American receiver Calvin Johnson to a pedestrian 19 yards on two catches.

“There were so many positives,” Whittingham said.

“That was a quality football team we beat today. And we not only beat them, we dominated the football game. This game is a springboard into next season.”

It was a perfect ending to a season that had its fair share of rough patches.

The Utes had their plans of a third-straight Mountain West Conference title derailed by a three-game losing streak in the middle of the year, but battled back to win four out of five, including an overtime win over BYU without their starting quarterback.

“It’s huge to go out this way,” Weddle said.

“We had that three-game losing streak in the middle of the season, people doubted us and didn’t like what we were doing as a football program. To go 7-5, it’s still mediocre, but it’s better than going 6-6 or not going to a bowl.”

The Utes will open up the 2006 season Sept. 2 against UCLA in Pasadena.