Steve Fifita has got Georgia Tech and the Emerald Bowl on his mind.

"We're playing a big-time school," said the Utah senior. "I always get up for big-time schools. I love playing them."

Less than a year ago, Fifita was named defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl. He made five tackles, including two behind the line of scrimmage, as the Utes capped a perfect season with a 35-7 win over Pittsburgh.

"Steve Fifita seems to play to the level of competition we are playing against," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "He plays his best when he's playing against the best opponents. That's what his M.O. has been."

Georgia Tech, a nationally ranked team with road victories at Auburn and Miami (Fla.), represents the final challenge in Fifita's collegiate career.

It's more than just a game for the 6-foot, 322-pound lineman, a two-time first-team all-conference honoree.

"We've got a lot of doubters out there still," Fifita said. "So it'll be good to shut some of their mouths."

At 6-5 overall, the Utes are at a crossroads. A victory could salvage a somewhat disappointing season.

"It's a great challenge for our players. We've talked about Georgia Tech's track record in bowl games and what they did this season — winning on the road in some tough places," Whittingham said. "Our guys are excited about having the opportunity to play a Georgia Tech."

Few, however, are as eager as Fifita.

"Will he be ready to play? Absolutely. I expect him to be a great player in his last game here at Utah," said defensive coordinator Gary Andersen. "I'm sure that's very, very important to him and it's going to be a key to the football game. We've got to be able to control the quarterback and Steve's a big part of that."

While acknowledging that Fifita has been very good in high-profile games like the Fiesta Bowl, Andersen believes he consistently excels.

"I expect him to go into the NFL and be a very good football player," Andersen said.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com