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December 23, 2006

Armed Forces Bowl: Utah vs. Tulsa

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Head-to-Head Breakdown

The old adage 'All's well that ends well' might be on the minds of players from Tulsa and Utah. The teams are aiming to end good - but somewhat disappointing - seasons on a positive note.

Tulsa appeared on its way to defending its Conference USA championship until consecutive losses to Houston, Rice and SMU in November. The Golden Hurricane ended up finishing in third place in the C-USA West Division. Tulsa was minus-six in turnovers during that losing streak.

In contrast, Utah was closing the season with a three-game winning streak. The Utes appeared to be on the verge of making it four in a row when quarterback Brett Ratliff threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Brent Casteel with 1:19 remaining in the regular season finale against rival BYU.

But the Cougars came back and scored a touchdown on the game's final play, leaving the Utes stunned and disappointed.

At least some of that disappointment could be eased with a bowl game triumph.

Armed Forces Bowl: Tulsa vs. Utah
Date: Saturday, Dec. 23, 8 p.m.
Location: Fort Worth, Texas
Network: ESPN2 (Mike Patrick, Todd Blackledge, Holly Rowe).
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Conference: Conference USA
Record: 8-4, 5-3
Coach: Steve Kragthorpe (29-21, in four seasons at Tulsa)
Passing leader: Paul Smith (213 of 323 for 2,569 yards, 15 TDs, eight INTs)
Rushing leader: Courtney Tennial (165 for 792 yards, 4.8 yards per carry, 14 TDs)
Receiving leader: Idris Moss (54 catches for 772 yards, 14.3 yards per catch, one TD)
Defensive leader: LB Nick Bunting (65 tackles, 4 for loss, two sacks, three passes broken up, one forced fumble)

Utah Utes
Conference: Mountain West
Record: 7-5, 5-3
Coach: Kyle Whittingham (14-10 in two seasons at Utah)
Passing leader: Brett Ratliff (205 of 357 for 2,556 yards, 22 TDs, eight INTs)
Rushing leader: Darryl Poston (140 for 546 yards, 3.9 yards per carry, five TDs)
Receiving leader: Derrek Richards (53 catches for 648 yards, 12.2 yards per catch, six TDs)
Defensive leaders: CB Eric Weddle (58 tackles, two for losses, six interceptions, two passes broken up, one forced fumble, two recovered fumbles)
Tulsa running game vs. Utah run defense: A veteran offensive line and enviable depth at tailback has enabled Tulsa to average 167.6 rushing yards per game. Courtney Tennial leads the Hurricane with 792 yards rushing. Brandon Diles (301 yards) and Tarrion Adams (292 yards) have been productive despite missing five and four games, respectively, because of injuries. A note of concern is that Tulsa averaged just 107 yards rushing in three of its four losses. No opposing runner has managed 100 yards this season against Utah, which ranks 26th nationally in run defense. The Utes held five teams to fewer than 100 yards, although San Diego State exploded for 204. Safety Steve Tate leads the Utes with 92 tackles, including 7 for losses. Middle linebacker Joe Jianonni has 89 stops, with eight behind the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Eric Weddle is exceptional against the run, too. Edge: Utah
Tulsa passing game vs. Utah pass defense: Quarterback Paul Smith has thrown for more than 300 yards just once, but he has passed for at least 215 yards in each of Tulsa's last three games. Smith distributes the ball well, and eight receivers have at least 11 catches. Idris Moss leads the way with 54 catches for 772 yards. Ryan Bugg has made 42 grabs for 573 yards. The Tulsa line has allowed just 10 sacks. Smith would be wise to throw away from Weddle, who has six of Utah's 16 interceptions. However, the Utes appear vulnerable everywhere else. They rank 86th nationally in pass defense despite facing some of the nation's less intimidating passing teams in San Diego State, Utah State and Air Force. BYU rolled up 375 passing yards and four touchdowns in the regular season finale and New Mexico had 350 yards and three touchdowns a month earlier. The Utah pass rush has produced 23 sacks. Edge: Tulsa
Utah running game vs. Tulsa run defense: Perhaps all one needs to know about Utah's running game is that the Utes' best rushing performance of the season was turned in by a cornerback. Eric Weddle played a few snaps at tailback against Air Force and rushed for 73 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. The Utes ran for at least 200 yards just twice this season - one of those was against Division I-AA Northern Arizona in the second game of the year. The Utes averaged 106 rushing yards in their five losses. Tulsa's linebackers are solid. Nick Bunting is a hard-nosed, sure-tackler who recorded 65 stops. Nelson Coleman managed 91 tackles. But the Golden Hurricane had problems slowing good teams. BYU rushed for 220 yards, Navy had 283, Houston rushed for 227. However, Tulsa was at least respectable against lesser running teams and held six opponents to 120 yards or fewer on the ground. Edge: Tulsa
Utah passing game vs. Tulsa pass defense: Utah quarterback Brett Ratliff struggled early and completed fewer than half of his passes in three of the Utes' first five games. However, he has come on strong down the stretch. He completed 64.4 percent (105 of 163) for 1,392 yards with 11 touchdowns and just one interception in the last five games. Derrek Richards leads with 53 receptions, but Brian Hernandez, Brent Casteel and Marquis Wilson each have 24 or more. Ratliff also doesn't have to stress too much about protection. He has only been sacked 14 times.

Tulsa isn't spectacular, but has a solid pass defense which ranked sixth nationally. That was enhanced by playing Navy and North Texas two of the three worst passing offenses in the country. However, that was countered by playing against Houston, BYU and UTEP - which are all in the top 12. The Golden Hurricane notched only 19 sacks and managed just seven interceptions Bobby Blackshire has three of them but limited opponents to just a combined 52.9 completion percentage. Edge: Utah

Coach vs. Coach: Four years ago Steve Kragthorpe took over a Tulsa program that had managed two victories over the previous two seasons. He led the Golden Hurricane to an 8-5 record in his first season and the Conference USA championship in 2005. He has become one of the hottest prospects for higher-profile programs seeking a coach, but has indicated he's willing to remain in northeast Oklahoma. Utah's Kyle Whittingham was in a vastly different position when he took over in Salt Lake City. He followed Urban Meyer, who left for Florida after winning 22 of 24 games in 2003 and 2004. That was a tough act to follow, but Whittingham has done all right with consecutive seven-victory seasons. Edge: Tulsa
Tulsa will win if: The Golden Hurricane scores 30 points. During Kragthorpe's four year-tenure, Tulsa has scored at least 30 points 29 times and has a 24-5 record in those games. The Golden Hurricane must also avoid turnovers. Tulsa committed seven turnovers during a three-game losing streak in November. They committed 10 turnovers in the other nine games combined.
Utah will win if: The Utes can continue the momentum from their late-season surge. Utah went 3-1 down the stretch and came within one play of beating Mountain West champion BYU. Quarterback Brett Ratliff, who has thrown 11 touchdown passes and just one interception in the last five games, must continue playing at that level. The pass defense must play at a higher level, though. In their five losses, the Utes have allowed at least 202 passing yards and have been torched for more than 300 yards three times. Utah has allowed 12 touchdown passes in its five losses.
Injury situation: Neither team has significant injuries.
Worth noting: BYU is the only common opponent. Tulsa lost to BYU 49-24 in the second week of the season. Utah fell to BYU 33-31 in the regular season finale. Junior quarterback Paul Smith is third on Tulsa's career passing yardage chart with 5,714 yards. He needs just 110 yards to move into second place. . Linebacker Nick Bunting was named the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year by the league's coaches, even though he ranked just third on the team in tackles. He is seen as the leader of the defense, which ranked first in the conference in total defense and pass defense and third in rush defense. Tulsa has four senior starters on the offensive line and all have at least 25 starts to their credit. Utah defensive back Eric Weddle, a semifinalist for the Thorpe and Bednarik awards, has scored eight touchdowns this season. Two were on interception returns, another was on a fumble return, four were on rushes and one was receiving. Punter Louis Sakoda was a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award . Salt Lake City Tribute sports columnist Kurt Kragthorpe is the brother to Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe. Utah has won five consecutive bowl games.
Line: Utah -2
Prediction: Utah 27, Tulsa 24
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Bobby Burton, Editor-in-chief: Tulsa, 31-27.
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Utah, 24-21.
Steve Megargee, National college football writer: Utah, 28-27.
Make your picks on Rivals.com Bowl Pick 'Em.

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