This year’s squad has defense and ‘king’ kicker

By By Nick Pappas

By Nick Pappas

Casual football fans want flash.

They think greatness is a barrel of trick plays, streaking routes and high scores. After Thursday, the casual fan wouldn’t call the Utes great, but simply lucky. The same could be said when this team came back from an eight-point deficit against Oregon State. The casual fan would say great teams blow out their rivals.

I beg to differ. Blowouts don’t prove greatness. They prove the weakness of the opponents.

This is the difference between the 2004 Utah Utes and today’s team. When the season ends, these Utes will have played three ranked teams. Time has shown that Oregon State wasn’t just a giant killer. Since its stunning defeat at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the team has gone on a four-game winning streak. These Utes deflated TCU, the highest-ranked opponent ever to venture into the Wasatch Mountains. Brian Johnson put together a stunning 80-yard drive against the Horned Frogs’ defense, which was No. 2 in the country.

In 2004, Alex Smith and his men in red scored more than 45 points a game. Smith had a passer rating of 176.528212;enough to make him the first pick in the NFL draft. I’m sure he looks back on those numbers with dreamy eyes while sitting on the 49ers bench rubbing his small hands together.

No one can question the numbers Smith put up during his years as a Ute, but his life as a pro quarterback only shows how overrated he was. Urban Meyer put him in an efficient system, and he ran the system efficiently8212;nothing more.

Utah didn’t play a ranked team until it met Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, but the Panthers were the forgotten middle child in a large BCS family.

In contrast, the 2008 Utes have won close, hard-fought battles against an improved MWC, taken on historically great Michigan Wolverines in their own backyard8212;regardless of their record8212;and found a way to win every game to date.

The casual fan looks at the big numbers, but it’s the smaller numbers that count. This year’s team gives up 97 rushing yards per game, which amounts to the No. 8 rushing defense in the nation. The 2004 Utes gave up more than 140 rushing yards per game. This year’s team is ranked No. 11 defensively, while the 2004 team was No. 39. If Smith faced a defense that’s as fast as TCU, would the team have found a way to simply outscore it?

We can debate how great the overall team is in history, but I would argue there is no question this is the best defense to ever take the field.

While we bring up the big names8212;the Smiths and the Johnsons8212;let’s not forget the best Ute to ever play the game. Louie Sakoda is the difference between these teams. This year, Sakoda has scored 94 points for Utah, including two field goals from more than 50 yards. He has been in more clutch situations than I can count.

The 2004 Utes always went for it on fourth down against weak defenses8212;David Carroll kicked five field goals the entire year. If the Utes had gone into the BCS against elite stoppers, such as Texas, Auburn or Virginia Tech, it would have been high noon without a pistol. Sakoda is a crucial weapon in critical situations.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself. There are more games to be played. To speak of the 2008 Utes in the same sentence as our historic BCS busters, remaining opponents SDSU, BYU and an eventual bowl opponent must fall. If all that happens, this team will go down as the best in history.

Let’s just hope we don’t play Pitt again.

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Nick Pappas