Just like they'd planned and hoped for all season, the Utah and Arizona football teams are spending the Christmas holidays soaking up the sunshine in southern California. The only problem is, the Utes and Wildcats got their destinations mixed up a bit.

Not that Anaheim is a bad place to be in late December. After all, the sun was out all day Monday and temperatures were in the mid-70s, with more of the same expected today.It's just that Arizona was hoping to play in its first Rose Bowl up in Pasadena against Penn State, while the Utes were looking for their first Holiday Bowl berth down I-405 in San Diego.

Instead, the two schools are matched up in the 11th annual Freedom Bowl, which will be played tonight (7 p.m. MST, KSL-TV) at Anaheim Stadium.

If nothing else, by now the Utes and Wildcats have got the "we're-glad-to-be-here" routine down pat.

"I couldn't be happier than to be in the Freedom Bowl," said Ute coach Ron McBride. "Our people are excited to be here. The people down here have treated us great."

When Arizona coach Dick Tomey was asked if his team was over the disappointment of not making the Rose Bowl, he said, "We passed that the moment it happened," and added, "If you asked our players which bowl game they've enjoyed the most the past five or six years, they'd probably say, the Freedom Bowl."

OK, so everyone's happy and thrilled to be here. That's great. But how is the game going to turn out?

Well, a lot may depend on which team is happier to be here. In other words, the more motivated team may end up the winner, because on paper, the two teams have a lot of similarities.

To wit:

- Both teams finished tied for second in their respective leagues with 6-2 records.

- Both have outstanding defenses, particularly against the run. Arizona finished second in the nation in rushing defense, while Utah finished ninth.

- Both teams feature balanced offenses, which are basically conservative possession-type attacks.

- Both coaches have built teams from middle-of-the-pack pretenders to perennial contenders in their respective leagues during the 1990s.

- Both teams have a top-notch quarterback who transferred from another major college - Arizona's Dan White (Penn State) and Utah's Mike McCoy (Long Beach State).

- Both teams feature consensus all-American defensive linemen - Utah's Luther Elliss and Arizona's Tedy Bruschi.

Arizona didn't send anyone to the Monday press conference, but Utah's two main men, McCoy and Elliss, are convinced that the Utes will be ready come game time.

"We're definitely ready to go," said McCoy. "We're focused and now it is just a matter of going out and doing it."

"We're focusing in, trying to relax and not use up too much energy," said Elliss. "We going to come out playing and not get psyched out."

Elliss may have been referring to the last two bowl games when the Utes came out slow, falling behind 21-0 to Washington State in the Copper Bowl and 28-0 to USC in last year's Freedom Bowl.

A good start will be key to the Utes' chances against an Arizona team that likes tough low-scoring battles. "If we get down 28-0, we'll never get it back because they have too good of a defense." said Ellis.

At Monday's press conference, the two coaches agreed on what the keys to the game are. Perhaps that's because they worked together for three years at Arizona in the late 1980s.

"The keys are always the same," said Tomey. "You have to win the turnover battle, the kicking game, the mental part, and win the fourth quarter. It's not much different any week."

McBride added "playing hard and enjoying what you do" to his list important keys to the game.

"I'm excited to play Arizona because it gives a chance to see where we are - I know where they are as a program," said McBride. "This team we play will be better - by far - than either one we've played in the last two bowl games."

The Utes want to establish a running game, which will be difficult against a team that has given up more than 100 yards rushing only twice all season. "We can't sit back there and throw every down and let them tee off on you," said McCoy. That's expecially dangerous because the Wildcats came up with 47 sacks this season.

Charlie Brown has rushed for more than 100 yards in four straight games for Utah and freshman running back Juan Johnson, who averaged 62 yards in five games before getting injured, should play for the first time since early October and Robert Hamilton will also play in the backfield.

Arizona is led by running back Ontiwaun Carter, who rushed for 1,163 yards this season. White passed for 2,181 yards and Richard Dice caught 56 passes for 969 yards.

But perhaps the game won't be decided by skill players.

"The difference in this football game will be in the offensive and defensive lines," said McBride. "And the kicking game will certainly be a major factor."