Utah focused on on-field battle, not off-field remarks

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
Before every one of Utah's big games this season, it seems like the Utes would find something to use as motivation.

Against TCU, it was the attention paid to the Horned Frogs' defense and not the Utes'. Utah went on to have one of its best defensive performances of the season.

Against BYU, it was the hype surrounding the Cougars' offense, and the Utes went on to force six turnovers and score 48 points on BYU, the most the Cougars allowed all season.

So when the No. 6 Utes take the field against No. 4 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Friday, the motivation will be respect and redemption for the entire non-BCS.

"It's a chance for us to certainly make a positive statement for the Mountain West Conference, for the non-BCS schools," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Like I've said several times since we got the invite, it's a process. One game is never going to make or break the entire non-BCS structure or the entire Mountain West. It's just a process.

"When we beat Pittsburgh [in 2005], it was a positive. When Oklahoma got beat by Boise State, it was a positive for the non-BCS. Last year it was a setback when Hawaii lost. ... Nobody really pays attention to what you say; it's what you do on the field. It's just another opportunity for us to line up and see how we fare against an extremely good opponent."

After the SEC championship, Saban cited his team as, "The only team that plays in a real BCS conference that went 12-0." At the time, both Utah and Boise State were 12-0.

Whittingham said he received several e-mails and phone calls after the words left Saban's mouth and then the news started to filter to the players.

"We've played with a chip on our shoulders all season," quarterback Brian Johnson said prior to the team arriving in New Orleans. "That's the mentality that a lot of guys have because we're kind of all from that same mold of a guy who really wasn't recruited, wasn't the biggest, strongest or fastest guy, but they love playing football, they were a good football player. They were mentally and physically tough and found a way to get the job done. I think that helps us tremendously in our preparation."

Since making the comments after the SEC championship, Saban hasn't exactly retracted what he said, but he has given the Utes a lot more respect. During the past week in New Orleans, he's talked favorably about the Utes speed on defense and skill on offense.

Whittingham said he hasn't let the underdog mentality rule his football team while its been in New Orleans. His team has been focused more on beating Alabama on the field then dwelling on what's being said off of it.

"You know, our guys are excited about this game regardless of external circumstances, but they're not oblivious to things. They hear things; they read things. You can't worry about that," Whittingham said. "I think that they're very motivated to go out and play well ... if my assumption is correct, they'll come with that same mindset tomorrow night and play well. Whether that's going to be good enough to win, we'll find out. I know they're going to have the right mindset and be ready to line up and go."