Utes ground game looks to plan “B”

No one doubted that a Brian Johnson injury would seriously affect the Utes aerial attack. But until the second half of the Oregon State game last week, few realized how much his presence affected the Utes’ running game.

The U football team and its fan base learned quickly.

“Football has not changed in 100 years,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “If you can’t run the football, everything is difficult on offense. Without the option element-or the diminished aspect of the option element, the tailback run game has got to be supportive of the quarterback.”

Without Johnson in the lineup, there was no option attack. There was no rushing attack. As a result there was nothing in the Ute arsenal to keep Oregon State’s defense honest. Collectively, the Johnson-less offense tailspinned in the second half. They were forced into four four-and-outs and held to just five first downs and less than 100 yards of total offense. To make matters worse, Matt Asiata-the juco transfer that gained 1,365 and scored 15 touchdowns at Snow College in 2006-broke his fibula and his tibia, which effectively ended his junior year.

Asiata’s injury also effectively ended the Utes’ hopes of using the transfer’s 235-pound frame to resurrect the run game that struggled to open things up for the passing game for most of last season.

“The run game brings up the safeties, it brings up linebackers,” said newly annointed starting quarterback Tommy Grady. “If you don’t have much of a run game (the defense) is going to stay back and play soft and they’ll be able to cover the routes.”

To compensate for the loss of Asiata, the Utes will now turn to Plan B.

The first part of that plan will pull the plug on the intention to make 2007 a redshirt year for Darrell Mack.

“I’m kinda sad because Matt’s a good friend of mine,” Mack said. “That’s part of the game, like coach always said. But I’m kind of happy for myself because I didn’t want to sit on the sideline anymore. I’m happy that I can contribute and help the team, but I’m sad it had to happen that way.”

With Grady now in Johnson’s stead under center, the Utes will have to scrap a significant portion of their option attack.

“A lot of the inefficiency in the run game last week…the option was the way we were going to move the football and when Tommy (Grady) comes in, his skills are not geared toward that specific game plan,” said Whittingham. “The way we attack in the run game will be different.”

This will force Mack, Darryl Poston and Ray Stowers to run between the tackles more frequently. This is something Stowers — who has been named the new starting tailback — prefers.

“I think we’ll be more traditional with the run,” Stowers said. “Personally, I like running the ball under center and coming downhill.”

Whittingam has stressed that there is no way to tell who will emerge as the starting running back for the rest of the season. For now, it seems Whittingham will use the platoon philosophy that was utilized last season, at least until one of his tailbacks separate themselves from the others.

Whoever emerges, the Utes will be eager for their running back to emerge sooner, rather than later. The Utes passing game — highlighted by an experienced and capable corps of receivers — will continue to be ineffective as long as opposing defenses can key on the Utes’ aerial attack.

Stowers and the rest of the running unit are taking the challenge of returning the Utes’ running game back to form, personally.

“We’re hungry,” Stowers said. “The backs are hungry,”

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