NEW ORLEANS — It took Alabama all of three plays to notice All-American left tackle Andre Smith’s absence in the Sugar Bowl.
Utah tested the left side of the Crimson Tide’s offensive line early and often Friday, taking advantage of a unit depleted after Smith was suspended for the game earlier this week for a team infraction.
Mike Johnson, a second-team all-SEC left guard, slid down to tackle from his usual spot, with backup right guard David Ross moving to left guard. It did little to slow the Utes down.
On the third play of the game, Utah’s Stevenson Sylvester beat Johnson on a straight speed rush to the outside, sacking John Parker Wilson for a 7-yard loss and forcing a punt.
Utah attacked that side of the line on Alabama’s second drive as well, sending a safety blitz that forced a bad pass that was intercepted by Robert Johnson, leading to another Utes touchdown.
Things quickly got worse. After being flagged for a false start on Alabama’s next drive, Johnson had his right ankle rolled up on a running play, forcing him to the sideline. He didn’t return.
The Crimson Tide moved starting right tackle Drew Davis to left tackle and replaced him with backup John Michael Boswell, a true freshman.
Utah had four first-half sacks, tying the most Alabama had allowed in a game all season. That was against Tulane in the second week, when Smith was out with a sprained right knee.
First things first
Alabama’s first quarter dominance ended in a burst of Utah touchdowns and a 21-0 deficit.
The Tide had allowed only 27 points in the first quarter all season entering the game, holding a 106-point edge over its opponents.
It was only the second time the Crimson Tide trailed entering the second quarter this season. LSU had a 14-7 advantage in the teams’ Nov. 8 game in Baton Rouge.
Alabama trailed 21-10 at halftime, just the second time this year it was behind going into the break. Florida led 17-10 at halftime of the SEC championship game.
Arenas all the way
Javier Arenas’ 73-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter was his third this season and the sixth of his career.
It was the second time he’s returned a punt for a touchdown in a bowl game. He went 86 yards for a score in the 2006 Independence Bowl against Oklahoma State.
That was Arenas’ sixth punt return for a touchdown, extending his own school record.
Utah’s assistant coaching staff has already been raided by other schools. Alabama knows it could be next.
The Utes’ recent success opened doors for both of their coordinators, with defensive coordinator Gary Andersen having accepted the head coaching job at Utah State and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig taking a similar position at Kansas State.
Fresh off a 12-1 regular season, Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, head defensive coach Kevin Steele and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart are all hot commodities.
“I think continuity is always good for your coaching staff,” Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban said. “But I also think the other side of that is, your coaches have goals and aspirations that they’d like to achieve. … So change becomes almost inevitable on every staff.”
While Saban isn’t resigned to losing members of a staff that helped engineer a remarkable turnaround in Tuscaloosa, he’s doesn’t view any departure as crippling to the program.
“The other side of that is, if you do have change, it’s an opportunity to bring in new enthusiasm, fresh ideas, people who can really complement the staff that you have,” Saban said.