A for adjustments: Ute changes prove to be good move against Cougars

The BYU Cougars and the 64,312 fans that packed LaVell Edwards Stadium Saturday saw a much different U football team than they were expecting.

What they saw was a different group altogether, a Ute squad with more than a few surprises up its collective sleeve.

For much of the season, and in particular following New Mexico’s comeback victory in Rice-Eccles Stadium last week, one of the primary criticisms levied on the Utes was their propensity for redundancy and an apparent inability to make adjustments as each game wore on. Case in point, the Lobos’ punishing pass rush that helped shut out the potent Ute offense in the aforementioned 31-27 loss.But all that changed last week was that the U coaching staff pulled out all the stops in preparation for a make-or-break road showdown with its archrival. First, head coach Kyle Whittingham closed all practices to both media and the public.

And while players and coaches kept quiet about their mid-week adjustments and insisted that they would be changing very little, if anything, the final product that took the field Saturday afternoon in Provo told a much different story.

Eric Weddle lined up at quarterback, one of seven different positions the Utes’ all-conference defensive back played. New starting quarterback Brett Ratliff didn’t run the option, which had become a staple of the Ute offense under the care of Alex Smith and Brian Johnson, but still managed to hurt the Cougars with his legs, rushing for 112 yards against the second-ranked run defense in the Mountain West Conference.

And then there was the so-called “circus defense,” which featured just one down lineman-all-conference defensive tackle Steve Fifita-and as many as 10 defensive backs in one formation, a scheme that players say was designed to take advantage of the Utes’ speed.

“We called it the circus because it was crazy,” junior safety Casey Evans said. “We tried to take advantage of their O-linemen. That was our premise: Use speed because their whole line is really big…We put our fastest guys out there and tried to beat them with speed.”

The circus was the set-up John Beck saw on the last play of the game, an incomplete pass in overtime that gave the Utes the upset victory.

“We had three or four things out of that. It got us out of three or four fourth-downs,” Whittingham said. “Of course, it got us out of that one at the end. That fourth down play was what we called circus zone, which is just rush two and drop nine, and that was the difference.”

But what surprised everyone even more than that was Ratliff’s completely unexpected running abilities, which put a rest to the myth that he is a pocket-only passer. His 352 yards of total offense were higher even than Johnson’s season average, and 112 of them came on the ground.

Time after time on Saturday, the junior JUCO transfer sidestepped the Cougar blitz, escaped the pocket and scrambled for a big gain.

“I’ve always liked running the ball. I always felt like I could do a pretty good job running the ball,” Ratliff said. “It opened up, I just tucked it down and got some yards to help the team win.”

While BYU’s run defense, statistically speaking, has been much more effective this season against the run than on the pass, the Utes spent a lot of time in film study this week and found some soft spots they were able to exploit with their ground game.

“They’ve got some talent back there, but we saw some things that we could take advantage of,” senior wideout Travis LaTendresse said. “Against New Mexico the middle of the field was wide open. The same thing with this week-we attacked the middle. The first half we really didn’t get anything going. It was there, but we had to calm down and just trust it.”

In a season littered with more adversity than the Utes could have possibly expected going into the year, the team took a few calculated but gutsy risks, and for once, they all paid off.

The Cougars were taken off-guard, the Utes opened up a big lead, and though BYU stormed back in the second half, the damage was already done.

The Utes pulled off an upset thanks in no small part to the element of surprise.

“There’s no better feeling than being able to come to BYU and win,” LaTendresse said. “It’s a tough place to play with the crowd noise and everything like that, the rivalry, the pressure, a new quarterback, John Madsen was out. A lot of things were against us. We kind of went into this game thinking it was us against the world. And it really was.”

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