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Published: December 21, 2008
Posted by: Chris Courtney
(11) Cincinnati Bearcats [11-2] – Big East Champions at (6) Utah Utes [12-0] – Mountain West Champions
Rice-Eccles Stadium – Salt Lake City, Utah
Finishing the regular season as one of only two teams to go undefeated through the 2008-2009 college football season (Boise State is the other team), the Utah Utes, led by head coach Kyle Whittington, enter this match-up against Cincinnati with a lot to prove. After starting the season in grand fashion by defeating unranked Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Utes ran through the remainder of their schedule, knocking off non-conference foe Oregon State — fresh off an upset victory over USC — and upending conference rivals, TCU and BYU, who were ranked No. 12 and No. 14 respectively. Senior quarterback Brian Johnson is the marquee name that powers the Utah offense, but he is surrounded by a rather impressive collection of playmakers. Running backs Matt Asiata and Darrell Mack have combined for over 1200 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns, while wide receivers Freddie Brown, Matt Casteel, and Bradon Godfrey form a terrific trio on the perimeter who have been responsible for approximately 68 percent of Johnson’s passing output. Cincinnati comes in to this game scratching and clawing their way through a competitive conference schedule that provided no rest for the weary. Rewarded for their consistency through Big East play, the Bearcats are the champions of the conference and pose considerable problems for the Utes. Led by junior quarterback Tony Pike, who was No. 5 on the Bearcat depth chart at quarterback at one point, Cincinnati employs an efficient spread offense attack that was installed by head coach Brian Kelly who came to Cincinnati in 2006 after successful campaigns at Division II Grand Valley State and Central Michigan. Offensively, Cincinnati is very similar to Utah, possessing a solid ground attack which is complemented by a passing game that features two receivers in Mardy Gilyard and Dominick Goodman who have combined for virtually 1000 yards receiving a piece (Gilyard with 1118 and Goodman with 977). Defensively, the Bearcats are spearheaded by All-American senior cornerback Mike Mickens and All-conference performers senior defensive tackle Terrill Byrd and senior defensive end Connor Barwin.
With both teams being so evenly matched offensively, the game is going to be decided by offensive efficiency and which team’s defense can make the most plays. Utah defense has been bent all season long, but has yet to break. Utah sophomore defensive end Paul Kruger is a playmaker who produces great pressure off the edge in getting to the quarterback and the Utes also feature a veteran secondary, led by junior Sean Smith, which has proven to be rather opportunistic. Cincinnati may have the more accomplished defense, but other than Oklahoma (a team in which they surrendered 52 points to), the Bearcats have yet to face an offense quite the caliber of Utah. Mickens and seniors DeAngelo Smith and Brandon Underwood are terrific corners who pose a handful of problems for opposing passing games, but like Utah, the front seven is small, and can be dominated at the point of attack. The difference in this game will be the poise and playmaking ability of Utah’s Johnson. Everytime Utah has needed a big play this season, Johnson has been able to deliver it with his outstanding mobility and live, accurate arm. In the end it’s a close game, but Utah makes just enough plays at home to come away with the victory. Utah edges Cincinnati 24-20.
Player of the Game: Utah quarterback Brian Johnson
(14) East Carolina Pirates [9-4] – Conference USA Champions at (3) Texas Longhorns [11-1] – Big 12 at-large
Texas Memorial Stadium – Austin, Texas
Few teams kicked off the season in a more upset-minded fashion than the East Carolina Pirates did in 2008-2009. In week one, the Pirates swindled a victory from No. 17 Virginia Tech, capitalizing on a blocked punt that went for an East Carolina touchdown which proved to be the game winning score in a 27-22 contest. The upset train continued to chug the following week vs. No. 8 West Virginia in Greenville, as the Pirates executed a near flawless game plan that saw them dominate time of possession and neutralize the seemingly indefensible run-pass threat of Mountaineer senior quarterback, Pat White, going on to a convincing 24-3 win. After clinging to victory at Tulane in week three, the Pirates appeared emotionally drained, hitting the proverbial “wall” and dropping three consecutive contests to NC State, Houston, and Virginia. Though they rallied nicely, winning six of their last seven games and capping off the season with a 27-24 win over Tulsa in the Conference USA Championship Game, the Pirates can’t help but feel a tad embarrassed after succumbing to the attention of being the media darling so early in the season. Led by the dynamic play of senior quarterback, Patrick Pinkney, the Pirates employ and efficient offense which is complemented by senior linebacker Pierre Bell and a scrappy, ball-hawking defense. Texas may have arguably been the most consistent team in the country throughout the entire season. After a rather predictable 5-0 start, the Longhorns hit quite possibly the roughest stretch of games of any team in the entire nation; playing four straight games against four Big 12 opponents ranked in the Top 11 nationally. Texas went 3-1 during this stretch, defeating No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 11 Missouri, and No. 6 Oklahoma State. While it took miraculous play for No. 7 Texas Tech to knock off the Longhorns in Lubbock, Texas rebounded nicely behind the tremendous leadership and arm of junior quarterback Colt McCoy, winning their final three games in convincing manner. Outside of the unparalleled McCoy, Texas doesn’t possess a lot of superstars on either side of the ball. Offensively, senior wide receivers Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby are McCoy’s preferred targets, while the ground game is sufficient, led by McCoy (the team’s leading rushers), sophomore Vondrell McGee, freshman Fozzy Whittaker, and senior Chris Ogbannaya. Defensively, Texas is terrific behind seniors Brain Orakpo (defensive end) and Rashad Bobino (linebacker).
The biggest thing East Carolina must avoid in this contest is making mistakes, particularly on offense. While the Pirate offense is skilled and fundamentally sound, it’s not a quick strike offense that is capable of engaging in a track meet with the loaded Longhorns, thus if they give up the ball, Texas will almost certainly make them pay. McCoy has been playing out of this galaxy the entire season, completing virtually 80 percent of his passes to the tune of 3445 yards, 32 touchdowns, and only 7 interceptions. Possessing the ball like the Pirates did against West Virginia will be paramount for success. For Texas, it’s simple. Don’t change a thing. The Longhorns have played about as consistent as it gets from wire to wire and there’s no sense in changing anything at this point. As long as McCoy doesn’t suffer a serious injury or a complete and utter meltdown, Texas wins rather easily and is on their way to a quarterfinal match-up against Utah in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe. Final score: Texas 42, East Carolina 14
Player of the Game: Texas quarterback Colt McCoy