As the season wears on, Johnson gains perspective

It’s been almost three months to the day since Brian Johnson first took the field as starting quarterback of the U football team. Since that time, the sophomore signal-caller has experienced a season’s worth of adversity, from the Utes’ late-game breakdowns to the team’s disappointing start to conference play and an injury-riddled receiving corps.

But since suffering from early first-game jitters during his first start, Johnson has gone on to become one of the most statistically productive quarterbacks in the nation.

“The game is starting to slow down for me. Things are not moving as fast as they were Sept. 2 against Arizona,” Johnson said. “(I’m) just continually trying to get better each and every week and not make the same mistakes over again.” He heads one of the nation’s top-20 offenses, a group that garners more than 450 yards of total offense per game.

Johnson himself accounts for about 325 of those yards. But it hasn’t been quite as easy as the stat sheets make it seem.

Despite putting up huge yardage numbers, the Utah offense has had its difficulties putting teams away. The Utes have the No. 2 total offense in the Mountain West Conference but are near the bottom of the league in scoring, having surpassed the 40-point mark just once.

“As far as us moving the ball, I think we can move the ball with anybody in the country, and I think our numbers have shown that throughout the year,” Johnson said. “But it’s a matter of scoring points instead of moving the ball. I’d rather score 40 points a game than move it 600 yards.”

The Utes hadn’t reached 40 points at all until their most recent game two weeks ago, a 42-32 road win over the UNLV Rebels that snapped a three-game losing streak. It was probably the team’s most impressive offensive output of the season, as they scored six touchdowns, never had to settle for a field goal and never turned the ball over on offense.

After struggling with the little things for much of the season, Johnson and the Utes hope the turnaround against UNLV is the turning point they need for the rest of the season.

“I just think it was a matter of executing and realizing that it was time for us to stop playing around and put points on the board,” Johnson said. “We were so close so many times…I think it’s just a matter of executing play-to-play and not having mental breakdowns and penalties and things like that.”

It’s the so-called “little mistakes” that have been a big problem for the Utes.

Johnson took his share of criticism earlier this season when he turned the ball over four times in a 31-17 loss to North Carolina. He took responsibility back then and has minimalized his mistakes ever since.

As he says, it has all been part of the maturation process, and he has made it a point to avoid repeating his errors.

“In this offense, the quarterback has to be right over 95 percent of the time. There’s a lot on the quarterback, and you have to go out there and be ready to react to different situations,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the main thing about being in this offense-you have to play your best every week.”

But now comes the hard part. With just three games left, the Utes face the arduous task of having to run the table to have a realistic shot at a bowl game. After three months on the job, Johnson is no stranger to the spotlight, but he expects it to get even bigger over the next three weeks.

“It’s a pressure situation, but that’s what you want as a quarterback,” he said. “You want to have the ball in your hands and want to make plays for your team. I look at it as a challenge, and I’m ready to go.”

As for some of his more-seasoned teammates, they have more than enough confidence that their quarterback now has the experience and where-with-all to carry them the rest of the way.

“He’s growing every day. Every game you see improvement from him. He’s maturing,” senior wideout John Madsen said. “He was thrown into the fire, and that’s going to help him become a great quarterback. With everything that’s been thrown at him in the games-he’s handling each situation better and better as the year goes on.”

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