Utes storm to victory

The worse the weather got, the better the U football team played. Nothing, not even a late-September blizzard, 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, 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,” Darrell 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 being sold, the number of empty seats nearly tripled those that were filled with neon-colored ponchos. For the Utes, it didn’t matter how many fans were watching — they were determined to display the version of Utah football fans can expect for the remainder of the season.

“We responded much better to adversity this week than we did last week,” head coach Kyle 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 in the first quarter, Brian Johnson threw a pass over to the middle, intended for wideout Jereme Brooks. Aggie linebacker James Brindley met Brooks the same time the ball 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 heads.

Instead, the turnover seemed to instill a sense of urgency for 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…’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.

Derrek Richards made up for his fumble on special teams last week with a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Aggies. Richards fielded the punt at the 25-yard line, avoided one would-be Aggie tackler, then took the ball down the left side of the field and was shielded by a very effective Utah blocking wall. Richards basically went untouched until he dove headfirst into the end zone to put the Utes on top for good.

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 (he) did a good job managing the game.”

Mack finished his first-ever experience in the wintery conditions with 133 yards on 26 carries — both career highs — and a touchdown on the side.

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

Although the Utes’ third touchdown — a 38-yard touchdown strike from Brian Johnson to Marquis Wilson — 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 four-and-out situation, Louie 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. “(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 and seal 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 passes the ball in a third quarter touchdown drive, which put the Utes up 31-10 against Utah State on Saturday. The Utes finished 34-18 to defeat the Aggies for the tenth-straight time.