Walkin’ the walk in a winter wonderland

The worse the weather got, the better the Utes played.

Nothing, not even a late-September snow storm was going to deny the Utes from making a statement following their first shutout in 14 years.

A week after their deflating 28-0 loss to UNLV last week, the Utes (2-3) handled Utah State (0-5) with a 34-18 win in a driving snow storm during Utah’s Homecoming game on Saturday.

“It’s real cold, you just have to palm the ball tight and keep moving,” Mack said with a shiver.

Whether it was the terrible weather, the Utes paltry 1-3 record going into the game or a combination of the two, the Homecoming game was not quite the Alumni reunion of years past. Despite 41,884 tickets sold, the number of empty seats nearly tripled those that were filled with neon-colored ponchos and hooded crimson-and-white sweatshirts. For the Utes, it didn’t matter how many fans were watching, they were determined to display the version of the U football team fans can expect for the remainder of the season.

“We responded much better to adversity this week than we did last week,” Whittingham said. “This week we battled through some situations and ended up getting the lead and never relinquished it.”

Despite the blowout finish, the game didn’t start well for the Utes. With the Utes driving, Brian Johnson threw a pass over to the middle, intended for wideout Jereme Brooks. Aggie linebacker James Brindley met the U freshman the same time the pass did and Brindley was able to strip the ball out of Brooks’ hands and make a looping, meandering run down to Utah’s 1-yard line. Aggie quarterback Leon Jackson III rushed the ball in on the next play to give the Aggies a 7-0 lead. But Johnson and the Utes did not hang their head.

Instead, the turnover seemed to jump start the Utes’ as Johnson led the Utes 72 yards down field and returned to Brooks in the end zone on a 22-yard pass to tie the game at 7-7.

“I just put it up and let him make the play,” Johnson said. “On the sideline, I told (Brooks) after the pick, I was like, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re going to come back to you. Just step up and make a play’ and he did an awesome job bringing that one down.”

On the ensuing possession, the Aggies managed to move the ball to their own 40-yard line before being forced to punt.

From that point, it was all Utah.Derrick Richards made up for special teams penalty last week against UNLV with a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown. Richards fielded the punt at the 25-yard line, avoided one Aggie, and then took the ball down the left side of the field and was shielded by a very effective Utah blocking wall. Johnson went basically untouched until he dove head first into the endzone to put the Utes on top for good.

After the Aggies managed to convert on a field goal attempt on the ensuing possession, the Utes extended their lead even further when Johnson connected with Marquis Wilson on a wheel route that saw Wilson find 5 yards of separation from the Aggie secondary, haul in Johnson’s pass, and run in the 38-yard play untouched for six points.

In his first start since a shoulder injury against Oregon State, Johnson finished with 181 yards on 19-for-29 passing, and a pair of touchdowns to go with his two interceptions.

“Offense, a little sporadic,” Whittingham said. “Brian’s a little rusty, that’s evident. Still not 100 percent healthy…but did a good job managing the game.”

Mack finished his first game in the wintery conditions with 133 yards on 26 carries-both career highs-to go with his rushing touchdown.

“That’s a huge plus for us,” Whittingham said. “That’s three weeks in a row that Darrell’s been productive for us.”

While the Utes’ third touchdown would prove to be enough for the victory, it was the Utes third quarter scoring drive that Whittingham pointed to as the difference in the game.

With Utah already leading 24-10 and facing a fourth-and-out situation Sakoda ran a fake punt 22 yards from the Utes’ own 22 yard line, to give his team the first down.”We had a fake punt in by design called,” Whittingham said. “The way (the Aggies) were setting up for the punt return, (our) front line didn’t know it was a fake. It was just the shield-what we call the shield, those three back guys and Louie-(the Aggies) were doing that massive retreat of all 10 punt return personal so we talked about it at halftime…just took advantage of it.”

The Utes finished off the drive on the legs of Mack-who gobbled up 49 of the Utes’ 80 yards on the series-to go up 31-10 to basically seal up the win.

“We were pounding those guys up front and the offensive line did an excellent job today of creating lanes for Darrell,” Johnson said. “Darrell ran the ball violently. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you know, just trying to keep pounding the ball with Darrell and he did a tremendous job today.”

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Lennie Mahler

Brian Johnson throws a touchdown pass to Marquis Wilson during Utah’s 34-18 win over Utah State. The touchdown gave the Utes a 21-10 lead in the wintery conditions Saturday.

Lennie Mahler

Marquis Wilson hauls in Brian Johnson’s touchdown throw in the second quarter to put the Utes up 21-10. Wilson was just one of eight targets Johnson used in the Utes’ win.