Bouncing back

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

Prior to the 2007 football season, the Utah coaching staff catered the majority of its offense around junior quarterback Brian Johnson and his ability to run the football.

Now that Johnson is out with an injured shoulder, those plans will have to drastically change if the Utes want to move the ball against Air Force tomorrow at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Replacing Johnson is the pocket-passing senior Tommy Grady, who will be making his first collegiate start against the Falcons.

“The option element and things we had in place for Brian (Johnson) and his abilities is a different approach than what we will take with Tommy Grady,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’ve got to accentuate Tommy’s strengths. He’s got a big arm and great size. He’s a pure passer, so obviously we’re going to tailor the offense after his skill set.”

Exactly what that tailoring means no one can be certain, but the Utes will most likely revert to the 2006 version of the offense, where then-quarterback Brett Ratliff would throw short passes and not rely so much on the option game.

But, considering that the entire Utah running attack was formed around the option game for this year, the Utah coaching staff has had some serious retooling this week.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the Utes have yet to establish a premier running back. Whittingham thought he was getting that in Matt Asiata, but a fluke injury last week ended the junior’s season prematurely.

Hoping to step up into that premier back position is junior Ray Stowers, who will start against the Falcons. Stowers, who rushed for 26 yards on 11 carries against Oregon State, laments the loss of Asiata, but is excited for the new opportunity.

“We expected big things out of Matt, but it’s just up to the next soldier to pick up that rifle,” Stowers said. “Whatcha gonna do with it? It’s just another opportunity for the rest of us backs to show what we can do.”

Stowers is slated as the starting running back against the Falcons, but will share carries with senior Darryl Poston and junior Darrell Mack until one of them sticks out above the rest. Mack was previously going to use his red shirt this season, but because of depth issues at running back, he will suit up.

“As those guys play, we’re hoping to see some separation through the course of the game similar to last week,” Whittingham said. “We were starting to see that last week before we had injuries hit us. We’re anticipating there will be some natural separation and whoever is the efficient back and whoever is getting it done will get most of the carries.”

Collectively, the Utes rushed the ball 30 times for 18 yards against Oregon State last week. Utah’s inability to run the ball made the team one-dimensional and, as a result, the passing game was also anemic.

On the other side of the coin, Air Force had absolutely no trouble moving the ball in its opener against South Carolina State. With new coach Troy Calhoun implementing a few new tricks, the Falcons racked up 455 net yards of offense against the Bulldogs.

As always, Air Force gained the bulk of its yards on the ground, rushing for 279 yards. Senior Kip McCarthy led the way for the Falcons, rushing the ball for 129 yards and one touchdown.

Perhaps, the most intriguing part of the Air Force offense was the passing game. Under former coach Fisher DeBerry, who coached the team for 23 years, the Falcons rarely relied on their aerial attack. Instead, they focused most of the offense around the option attack.

New coach Troy Calhoun kept the option attack in the arsenal, but also installed new passing formations to complement the ground attack. The result was an impressive performance from the Falcons’ quarterback Shaun Carney, who completed 11 of his 18 pass attempts for 176 yards and one touchdown.

“I wish we had two or three games to study, but we only have that one so we’re putting a lot of stock in that game,” Whittingham said. “It is different to see him drop back or take snaps in the shotgun and throw the ball around and see something you haven’t seen in nearly 30 years.”

On defense, the Falcons boast one of the best linebackers in the MWC in senior Drew Fowler. Last season, Fowler ranked 11th nationally in tackles, averaging 10.2 per game. The senior cadet enters this season on the Butkus Award watch list, which is given to the most outstanding linebacker in the nation.

Fowler leads an Air Force defense that held South Carolina State to merely 160 total yards in its opener. The Falcons excelled at pressuring the Bulldogs’ quarterback, sacking him a total of six times.

The Utes, on the other hand, were only able to pick up one sack against the Beavers and struggled to slow down their potent running attack — particularly in the second half. The one positive for the Utes on defense was the play of sophomore cornerback Sean Smith, who recorded two interceptions in his first-ever start in the secondary.

“It felt good to get those two interceptions,” Smith said. “But at the same time, we lost the game, so it kind of takes away from it. As a team, we didn’t stop the run very well. We missed a lot of tackles. I missed a lot of tackles.”

Smith and the rest of the Utes will have a chance at redemption this week when they host Air Force in their home opener.

“We’ve got to rebound,” Whittingham said. “Nobody feels sorry for you if you have injuries. We lost some guys that were really important to us, but we’ve got to bounce back, we’ve got to move forward. Now, it’s an opportunity for guys to step up.”

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