Smith will lead Ute offense against Cal

For a pair of U quarterbacks-and a small legion of Ute fans-the suspense is over. When the U football team (1-1) takes the field Thursday night, sophomore Alex Smith will take charge of the offense against the California Golden Bears (1-2). Head coach Urban Meyer announced Wednesday that Smith would start over former starter Lance Rice.

But having a newbie leading the team’s complex offense is not the only weight bearing down on coach Meyer and the depleted Utes. Their weekend showdown with the Texas A&M Aggies cost them a lot more than a tally in the L column.

Starting quarterback Brett Elliott broke his wrist while trying to tie the game on the team’s last offensive play of the game. His injury, which will keep him out of action for at least a month, prompted Smith’s insertion into the starting lineup.

But the injury bug doesn’t stop with Elliott. Junior tailback Marty Johnson (foot) and all-conference defensive end Jason Kaufusi (shoulder) will both be sidelined for the third consecutive game.

The absence of Johnson means that senior Brandon Warfield, already a two-time MWC Player of the Week this season, will lead the ground game all by his lonesome.

In two games, Warfield has carried the ball 69 times for 353 yards. While his running has been the core of the U offense, the wear and tear on his body after so many carries may take its toll later in the season, and the addition of Johnson to the lineup would probably help Warfield stay fresh.

For as banged-up as the Utes are going into Thursday’s contest, playing a game just five days after a physically brutal struggle against the Aggies will be yet another obstacle.

But as far as Meyer and the Utes are concerned, the exposure of the their nationally televised meeting with the Golden Bears is worth the short week.

“I don’t mind playing in the short week because I’m happy to be back on the field,” sophomore linebacker Spencer Toone said.

While the coaching staff may worry about injury and fatigue, many players are just anxious to get back on the field and get that sour taste out of their mouths.

“I think the players aren’t nearly as worried as the coaches about playing on a Thursday,” wide receiver John Madsen said. “We would rather be out there playing than practicing.”

Plus, California will be going on just as much rest as the Utes-and the Bears are coming off just as tough a loss.

While the Utes went into Kyle Field and took the Aggies to the wire-losing on a missed two point conversion with just seconds to play-the Bears dropped a similar 23-21 heartbreaker to MWC favorite Colorado State.

California overcame a late 20-7 deficit, scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to take a one point lead, only to lose on a field goal minutes later.

The Bears’ last gasp at pulling at a victory ended abruptly on their ensuing drive, as quarterback Reggie Robertson was picked off by CSU’s Ben Stratton to seal the deal, and drop California below .500.

Cal’s early season schedule has been grueling. The team opened the season against Kansas State on ESPN, dropping a 42-28 shootout in Kansas City, Mo.

The team got back on track at home a week later, trampling Southern Mississippi 34-2, but the Bears’ loss to Colorado State was a considerable setback, and they are looking to get back on track against Utah.

The Utes have at least as much on the line Thursday night. Smith is starting the first game of his career and, despite a fairly impressive showing against Utah State in the team’s season opener, he is still raw and mostly unchallenged.

“Alex is talented, but he may get a little tense out there, so we’ve just got to calm him down,” Meyer said. “But I think our running game will help him out. That’s been our strength all season. How are they going to stop Brandon Warfield?”

But given Elliott’s expected time of recovery, fans may be getting a peek at the future of U football. Smith was expected to start eventually for the Utes anyway-now is his opportunity to stake his claim to the starting role for good.

But, of course, Smith and the U coaching staff will take things one game at a time for now. And the task at hand is the Cal Bears, the Utes’ final opponent before a two week break and the start of conference play Sept. 27, at home against the Rams.

“One of the reasons we scheduled this early game was so that we can get some national recognition for Utah football,” Meyer said. “This week is going to be tough, and afterward there’s going to be a lot of preparation for Colorado State. But California is a very good football team.”

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