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December 24, 2006

Utes win 6th consecutive bowl game

Fittingly, the ball was in Utah defensive standout Eric Weddle's hands when the Armed Forces Bowl ended.

Weddle had an interception on the final play Saturday night, only a minute after scoring on a 4-yard run, to cap the Utes' 25-13 victory over Tulsa. Utah has won six straight bowl games, matching the longest active streak.

"Having him end his career with that pick, you couldn't have scripted it any better," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

It was Weddle's final start at Utah, where in a 48-game career he was a two-time Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year who also got plenty of snaps at quarterback and running back while also holding and returning kicks.

"I'm going to cherish everything I've gained here," Weddle said. "I'm going to be a Ute forever."

The Utes (8-5) have won all of their bowl games since 1999, including two years ago when they were the first non-BCS team to play in the Bowl Championship Series and beat Pittsburgh 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl to cap an undefeated season.

Weddle was the holder on all four field goals by Louis Sakoda -- who was actually selected the game's MVP. Weddle also ran 10 times for 56 yards, including two runs to set up the other Utah touchdown, recovered a fumble and had six tackles.

"We are losing some guys that have just been instrumental in our success, starting with this guy," Whittingham said, as Weddle sat to his right still in his grass-stained uniform.

Brett Ratliff was 23-of-34 passing for 240 yards and was credited with a 10-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, though it was actually a designed catch-and-pitch similar to a score the Utes had in their Fiesta Bowl romp. Brian Hernandez caught the ball near the line of scrimmage and pitched to Brent Casteel, who ran around the left end and leaped into the end zone.

Boston College also has won six straight bowls. The Eagles have a chance to extend their streak next Saturday against Navy in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Paul Smith scored on a pair of 1-yard keepers for Tulsa (8-5), which finished a once-promising season with its fourth loss in five games.

Sakoda kicked a 41-yard field goal on the final play of the first half to give Utah a 9-7 lead. The Utes put the game out of reach by scoring on their first two possessions after halftime, the second when they started at their own 1 after a punt.

"Those were big momentum points. They scored 13 unanswered points," Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe said. "We would have liked to get off the field with a 7-6 halftime lead. We had chances to get some turnovers. The guy threw it to us five times. If we had gotten those turnovers, that might have changed game."

Utah's latest bowl victory came on the TCU campus, where it played for the first time since a September 2005 game when the Utes' school-record 18-game winning streak ended in a 23-20 overtime loss against the Horned Frogs.

On the opening drive after halftime, Weddle took direct snaps on consecutive plays for runs of 7 and 10 yards. That set the Utes up at the 10 for the catch-and-pitch TD that made it 16-7. He carried six straight times on the final offensive series.

"Hammer it into the end zone. We stumped that mud hole dry and kept giving it to him," Whittingham said.

Weddle also threw a touchdown pass this season and scored three times on defense -- two interception returns and one fumble recovery.

After Utah started at its own 1, Ratliff threw a 7-yard pass to Derrek Richards and ran for 12 yards on the next play. The Utes actually gained 92 yards on the drive, making up for two 5-yard penalties, before they had to settle for Sakoda's 34-yard field goal.

Sakoda kicked a career-long 45-yard field goal on Utah's opening possession of the game. He added a 39-yarder midway through the second quarter.

The game provided a first-time matchup of head coaches who were childhood friends. The fathers of Whittingham and Kragthorpe were on Lavell Edwards' staff together at BYU from 1973-79.

Smith's 1-yard keeper put Tulsa ahead 7-3 early in the second quarter, only after the play was reviewed to confirm the ball didn't pop out of his hands until after he stretched it across the goal line.

That ended an 80-yard drive that almost never got started for the Golden Hurricane after punt returner Idris Moss fumbled. Two Utah players missed chances to recover before freshman linebacker Mike Bryan emerged from the bottom of the pile with the ball.

Tulsa finished with only 254 total yards -- 146 below its season average that was second-best in Conference USA.

"I felt pretty positive. We've been in bad situations and came back and won," Smith said. "No elements during game surprised us. ... We didn't our job."

The fourth-year game, formerly known as the Fort Worth Bowl, was sponsored by Bell Helicopter.


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