The last hurrah

For some, it will be the last game of their collegiate careers. For others, it may be an early opportunity to audition for next year’s starting lineup. Whatever the motivation, the 2006 Utes will suit up for the final time this season in a couple weeks-and this time on a little bit bigger stage.

The Utes will take on the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth on Dec. 23, marking the fourth-straight season the team has qualified for the postseason. But, of course, just getting there is not even half the battle; the Utes are intent on going out the way they have in their last five bowl games-with a win.

“We’re practicing hard, we go six days a week of doing football stuff,” said senior defensive back Eric Weddle. “We’re just trying to get our minds right and prepare and go out there and get another bowl victory like we’ve done the last five times.”

But for Weddle and several of his teammates, Dec. 23 means something a little more than just another bowl game. For them, the seniors (eight starters in all), it will be the last time they will put on a Utah uniform after four years in which the collective group has accumulated 36 wins and three bowl titles.

But those who will be departing from the U campus for greener pastures next year insist they aren’t looking toward the Tulsa game with mixed feelings, but with excitement at 60 more minutes of football.

“Not bitter-sweet,” Weddle said. “Hopefully we’ll come out with a win and end my career right, but I’m anxious to get to the bowl, get a victory, play my last game and move on to the future.”

Needless to say, the Utes have significant reason for optimism going into their season finale. They played their best football of the season down the stretch, rattling off three wins in a row before suffering a last-second heartbreaker at the hands of archrival BYU. However, Weddle insists he and his teammates are “done” with that loss; in fact, he said, there were more than a few positives to take from the fact that the Utes took the No. 21 team in the country down to the wire despite heavy odds.

“We played great,” Weddle said. “We had a chance to win, didn’t get it done, but we showed what kind of team we are in that game and we’re going to show it this bowl game.”

With or without that loss, the fact remains that the Utes’ passing game, maligned by many throughout the season, has been extremely potent since the Wyoming Cowboys shut it down in mid-October. And following a Thursday night loss to New Mexico on Oct. 19, the U defense has followed suit as the team put it together in decisive victories over UNLV, Colorado State and Air Force.

Over the final month of the season as a whole, the Utes averaged 438.8 yards of total offense per game and turned the ball over just once.

With Tulsa, the Utes face a team that had the exact opposite experience in November, as the Golden Hurricane dropped three games in a row before defeating Tulane in its regular-season finale. And while the Utes are a pass-first team, Tulsa relies a bit more on the run, averaging 167.7 yards per game on the ground.

But with bowl games, one often has to throw stats out the window. After all, both teams have a few extra weeks to prepare than they normally do-meaning coaches have time to devise new schemes, and perhaps even a few new tricks. One needs look no further than last year’s Utah bowl game. Facing off against Georgia Tech, which featured a defense that, at the time, was one of the top 10 in the country, many believed the Utes would have trouble, and that they would have to grind it out in order to have a chance. Instead, Brett Ratliff, Travis LaTendresse and Co. torched the Yellow Jackets through the air en route to a 38-10 win.

Obviously, this year’s Utes have already begun to watch film on their next (and final) opponent. And though, no doubt, things will change once the teams actually take the field, they will put what they do know to good use.

“They seem pretty balanced. They have, like, a 2,000-yard passer, I think. Their running backs are pretty good,” linebacker Kyle Brady said. “They have a decent running game from what I’ve seen, (but) they like to run a little more than they like to throw.”

While Weddle and Co. will be gone come spring ball, Brady and a host of others will return to the Utes next year, placing a different kind of importance on the coming showdown with Tulsa.

“It’s good for these seniors,” said free safety Steve Tate. “A bowl game is a good gift for them. You know, we want to send them out on the right foot, but us Juniors and us underclassmen, too. It’s a big, big step for us to get into the offseason and keep the momentum alive.”

Mike Terry