Bea-UTE-iful victory

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 3, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Coach Nick Saban and the Alabama players repeatedly said the Sugar Bowl will be a key to how this team will be remembered.

If true, that’s bad news for the No. 4 Crimson Tide. Down to its third-team left tackle, Alabama’s offensive line uncharacteristically struggled and its normally stingy defense was victimized by quarterback Brian Johnson and No. 7 Utah in a 31-17 Sugar Bowl loss Friday night.

Alabama (12-2) couldn’t summon up the physical, feisty style that led to a perfect regular season and the absence of All-America left tackle Andre Smith clearly hurt.

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Alabama faced its biggest deficit of the season after falling behind 21-0 in the first quarter.

The beleaguered offensive line was also vulnerable to a quick, aggressive defense. Smith, the Outland Trophy winner, was home in Birmingham after being suspended four days before the game for alleged dealings with an agent.

Replacement Mike Johnson, normally a starting guard, left with an injured right ankle in the first quarter and didn’t return.

David Ross took his normal spot. Right tackle Drew Davis switched sides and freshman John Michael Boswell replaced him.

A line that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had said was the key to Alabama’s offense was suddenly a weak spot. Alabama’s John Parker Wilson was sacked eight times and harried into two interceptions and a fumble. All-Southeastern Conference tailback Glen Coffee was held to 36 yards rushing.

And Brian Johnson picked Alabama apart early to push Utah to a 21-0 lead, only the second time all season that Alabama has been down after the first quarter. The nation’s No. 3 defense allowed 150 yards in that quarter after coming into the game giving up 257 a game.

The biggest play for Alabama was Javier Arenas’ 73-yard punt return for a touchdown to make it 21-10 in the second quarter.

Wilson’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Coffee cut into the lead early in the third, but Alabama didn’t score again.

Before the game, Saban had emphasized the importance of winning.

‘‘I really do think the legacy of this team lies in what they do from this point on,’’ Saban said. ‘‘What has happened to this point really doesn’t matter. This team will be remembered a lot by their last game.’’