SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Nearly a year after Utah invaded the Bowl
Championship Series for the final victory in an amazing unbeaten
season, center Jesse Boone simply is grateful for the chance to
finish his college career with any fiesta at all.
Boone, who has played two positions for three coaches in five
years at Utah, will lead the Utes against No. 24 Georgia Tech in
the Emerald Bowl on Thursday. The all-conference standout has seen
far more highs than lows during a tumultuous time for Utah
football, most notably the Utes' 12-0 run in 2004, capped by a
blowout victory over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.
Almost anything would be anticlimactic after that dream season.
But Boone sees nothing wrong with a trip to picturesque San
Francisco for a tough game against the Yellow Jackets (7-4),
particularly when the revamped Utes (6-5) nearly missed the
postseason before an overtime win over archrival BYU in the
"I think we're relieved by the chance to be here after all
we've gone through," said Boone, whose younger brother, Jason,
plays right tackle for the Utes. "Nothing is ever going to match
last year, but this is a different team. We seniors have just about
done it all, but we would like one more win to cap it."
Some Georgia Tech players were disappointed when they ended up
in San Francisco, knowing the cross-country trip would limit their
traveling party of fans for their ninth straight bowl appearance.
The Utes had no such qualms, enjoying everything from rainy East
Bay practices to the teams' annual trip to Alcatraz Island. In
fact, coach Kyle Whittingham loved the chance to end his rookie
season by the San Francisco Bay when the Las Vegas Bowl chose BYU
despite its loss to Utah.
"We've had a great time since we've been here," said
Whittingham, the Utes' defensive coordinator for 10 years before
taking over for Urban Meyer. "This beats the heck out of Memphis,
Tenn., that's for sure, and one of the best places to see Las Vegas
is in your rearview mirror."
The Utes visited Memphis for the 2003 Liberty Bowl, then
followed up that conference championship with last season's perfect
BCS run. At the Emerald Bowl, they're going for their fifth
straight bowl victory.
And not all the Yellow Jackets were disappointed about being so
far from Atlanta for the postseason: Linebacker Gerris Wilkinson,
Georgia Tech's co-captain and leading tackler, is an Oakland
native. Wilkinson was even more excited about the matchup than the
"I've never spent so much time in San Francisco in my life,"
Wilkinson said with a grin. "The only disappointment we had was
that so many teammates would be away from their families at
Christmas. Once we started to study the film of Utah, we realized
on the defense that this was going to be a great challenge all
around. That's a big, talented team."
Coach Chan Gailey agrees with his star linebacker, deciding
through film study that Utah might have the most massive offensive
line his team has seen.
"After going over to Alcatraz on a boat with them (Monday), I
haven't changed my opinion," Gailey said. "They're big human
beings. They can block out the sun on you if you're not
That line will protect quarterback Brett Ratliff, who took over
for injured Brian Johnson just in time to lead the victory over
BYU. Ratliff should be able to play on his sprained ankle, but Utah
could rely heavily on running back Quinton Ganther, a native of
nearby Richmond who will have about 200 friends and family members
at the game.
West Coast fans will get an opportunity to see sophomore
receiver Calvin Johnson, the Yellow Jackets' rising star who caught
52 passes for 869 yards and six touchdowns this season.
When asked to compare Johnson to another receiver the Utes had
faced, Whittingham instead chose Terrell Owens. Utah cornerback
Eric Weddle, the Mountain West's defensive player of the year,
largely will get the defensive assignment.
And though both teams have high hopes for a season-ending bowl
victory, they're also comfortable simply enjoying the trip.
"My philosophy about bowl games has always been (that) unless
you're playing for a championship or one of the top spots in the
country, it should be a reward and it should be fun for the kids,"
Gailey said. "That being said, they're keeping score, so you're
going out with the purpose of winning."