Put out to pasture: Suspect defense becomes ally as football trounces Wyoming

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After a three-game losing streak dropped the U football team to 3-4 and out of the conference race, head coach Kyle Whittingham told his players they had four “Super Bowls” left in order to get to the postseason.

So far, so good for the Utes, who won their second game in a row Saturday, toppling the Wyoming Cowboys 43-13 in what coaches and players agreed was the team’s best performance of the season.

“Very good win. We needed that one. We cleaned our pipes out, so to speak,” Whittingham said. “We’re in decent shape now; we’ve still got our bowl hopes alive.”

The Utes (5-4, 3-3 MWC) had plenty of question marks going into Saturday afternoon’s showdown. The consensus among many was that the U offense, without tailback Quinton Ganther-who sprained a knee during the team’s bye week-would struggle against the conference’s No. 1 pass defense, while Casey Bramlet, Jovon Bouknight and the Cowboys (4-5, 2-4 MWC) would take advantage of an erratic Ute secondary

As it turned out, the exact opposite was true.

The Utes put up one of their most explosive passing performances of the year, while Bouknight was held to just 40 yards receiving. Brian Johnson continued to make his case for All-Conference honors, throwing for 384 yards and four touchdown passes while running for another score.

“The kid is phenomenal,” Whittingham said. “For a sophomore to do the things he’s doing…I couldn’t be happier.”

At first, the meeting looked as though it would be a defensive battle, as the teams traded field goals early on. But the Utah offense found its rhythm late in the second quarter, as Johnson found John Madsen for a pair of touchdown passes in the 2:13 of the first half.

“Huge momentum builder. The way we finished the first half was great,” Whittingham said. “Our defense studded up and got the ball back for us, and Brian Johnson, who has been so effective in two-minute situations this year, engineered another drive that got us in the end zone and got us huge momentum going into halftime.”

The second touchdown came as a result of a three-and-out, in which the Ute pass-rush, dormant for most of the season, sacked Bramlet twice.

“Coaches just let us go. They told us not to worry about anything and just get to the quarterback,” said defensive end Martail Burnett.

The Utes got the ball back with just 1:06 left in the quarter, and Johnson immediately marched the offense down the field and found Madsen on a 12-yard slant just inside the goal line to give the team a 20-6 halftime advantage.

“When we got the ball back, we had some time, and we were thinking field goal. But we had a couple of big plays, so we tried to punch it in,” Johnson said. “John did a good job getting open and connecting on the throw.”

From then on, the Utes had their way with the vaunted Wyoming defense, as

Johnson amassed 451 yards of total offense, more than making up for Ganther’s absence.

“Quinton is a great running back,” said Madsen, who caught a career-high 12 passes for 117 yards. “With him, we’re a much better team. But on this team, when someone goes down, the next person’s got to step up and do his job that much harder.”

The Ute running game put up 179 yards on the ground, including 67 from Johnson and 65 from freshman Darrell Mack.

The Wyoming offense managed just 118 yards in the second half, 279 total. The Ute defense brought Bramlet down three times and forced three turnovers, including Casey Evans’ fifth of the season, which came in Utah territory and ended a scoring threat by the Cowboys.

“No doubt about it, that was the best defensive performance this year by far,” Burnett said. “A young team grew up. We’re constantly improving, and that’s a good thing.”

The Utah offense, on the other hand, was as efficient as it has been all season. The Utes didn’t turn the ball over all game and totaled 563 yards.

“The points equated with the yardage, which was a positive and which is what we need to happen,” Whittingham said.

The starting U offense was aggressive all afternoon, converting two pivotal fourth downs, both of which eventually set up touchdowns.

“I think that was huge,” Johnson said. “We went for it on that fourth-down and set up a touchdown. Good aggressive play-calling by coach Ludwig, and we just did a nice job of executing.”

Saturday’s ballgame seemed an antidote to almost all the Utes’ problems. In addition to scoring touchdowns in the red zone and taking care of the football, Utah also outscored Wyoming 10-0 in the fourth quarter after getting outscored 72-16 in the final period over the first eight games of the season.

“I was extremely happy with the effort that we showed in the fourth quarter. The defense didn’t give up any points,” safety Eric Weddle said. “It was a huge effort; we emphasized it every day in practice in weeks past. We haven’t been playing well in the fourth quarter, but it showed today that we’re trying to turn the corner right now.”

The team hopes to regain Ganther next week when it hosts New Mexico, as well as senior wideout Travis LaTendresse, who missed another game with a high ankle sprain.

While the Cowboys are now probably out of the bowl picture, having lost their fourth game in a row to drop under .500, the Utes still have plenty of optimism going into the final stretch of the regular season.

“Two big football games left, two good teams left to play,” Whittingham said. “We put ourselves in a good position to try to make something good happen at the end of this year.”

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