A streak of a different color: Football is back on the winning wagon

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It was more than just a slump. A few weeks ago, the U football team was at an impasse.

The Utes’ postseason hopes looked to be all but a lost cause-a far cry from the team that opened up the season in rather impressive fashion, winning its first two games and three of its first four.

But just three weeks after suffering through a three-game losing streak, the Utes seem to have come full circle.

“I think we had the best week of practice we had all year long,” U head coach Kyle Whittingham said after Saturday’s victory. “The players were focused; they worked hard. As long as they continue to do that, we have a shot.”

Be it a poor mindset or simply poor execution resulting from the team’s youth movement, there were plenty of reasons for the Utes’ inability to finish off opponents and close out games in the fourth quarter. However, they say it’s hard to put a finger on just one aspect of the game to explain their October difficulties.

Junior strong safety Eric Weddle attributes the fourth-quarter woes to a lack of discipline among the younger players. “We lost a couple of games in the fourth quarter that we should have won, and now (the young guys) know that…if we do that again, we won’t go bowling. I think it really hit us that we need to do it now and not later,” he said.

The Utes’ last two games have yielded their two highest-scoring efforts of the season (42 points vs. UNLV and 43 in Saturday’s blowout win over Wyoming), and the team’s all-around performances were arguably its two best of the year.

“It shows a sign of maturity. All season, we’ve had those fourth-quarter woes,” sophomore defensive end Martail Burnett said. “A young team grew up (Saturday).”

Turnovers and red-zone follies cost the team at least two victories and was one of the team’s most glaring weaknesses. But in the last two games, the U offense has scored on nine of its 10 red-zone opportunities and hasn’t turned the ball over once.

“I think that as the season progresses, everyone gets more comfortable and gets used to what they have to do,” said quarterback Brian Johnson, whose 451-yard performance put him at No. 5 in the nation in total offense. “Everyone has done a nice job of making plays and putting points on the board.”

While the U offense has had no trouble in recent weeks, there is still a question surrounding the health of senior tailback Quinton Ganther.

The 5-foot-10-inch, 214-pound bruiser is third in the conference in rushing yards per game (96.4) but was out during the Utes’ win over Wyoming on Saturday after spraining a knee during the team’s bye week.

Ganther was in uniform Saturday, but head coach Kyle Whittingham said Ganther was at “about 70 percent” and felt it best to keep him out.

“There was no need to risk it,” Whittingham said. “He was there and kept letting us know he was available if we needed him.”

Despite the fact that the Wyoming defense was able to drop plenty of players into coverage without the threat of Ganther, Johnson and the U passing attack lit up the Cowboy secondary to the tune of 384 yards and four touchdowns. Meanwhile, Ganther’s little-used backups-freshman Darrell Mack, sophomore Mike Liti and senior Daryl Poston-did an admirable job in his place, combining for 102 yards on 25 carries.

“Quinton is a big part of what we do, but we know we have guys that are ready if he’s not able to go,” Johnson said. “I don’t think other people knew that. Everyone was doubting us and saying that without Quinton, this offense would kind of fluster a bit. No matter who was back there, we were able to produce.”

On the defensive side, Weddle’s dominant performance against Wyoming wideout Jovon Bouknight has made Whittingham re-think his defensive backfield. While the junior safety hasn’t officially moved to corner, Whittingham said that he will play both positions for the rest of the year, depending on the matchup.

Meanwhile, struggling corner Ryan Smith, who has endured a sophomore slump after a tremendous freshman campaign, saw very little playing time Saturday and has been relegated to the bench.

After the team’s performance against the Cowboys, the Mountain West Conference recognized Utah on Monday. The Utes swept the Player of the Week awards with Johnson, Weddle and kicker Dan Beardall all taking home the weekly honors.

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