Life of Brian: The big game

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

Like many of his teammates, Utah quarterback Brian Johnson is anticipating the annual rivalry game against BYU.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Unlike teammates Steve Tate and Paul Kruger, who both grew up in Utah, Johnson hadn’t heard about BYU before coming to the U. That didn’t take long to change.

The junior got a feel for what the game meant to Utah and BYU fans in 2004. Adding to the drama, Johnson’s cousin, Michael Reed, signed to play wide receiver for the Cougars the following year. Now, Johnson and the Utes are squaring off against the Cougars with both teams carrying seven-game win streaks — something that has never happened before.

The Daily Utah Chronicle caught up with Johnson earlier this week to talk about the rivalry and what the Utes have to do to come out of Provo with a win.

The Chronicle: So, big rivalry game on Saturday. Have you ever been around anything as intense and emotional as the game between Utah and BYU?

Johnson: I can’t say that I have. Coming from Texas, there were quite a few big football rivalries, but I was never really a huge fan growing up. But being a part of this rivalry is something. It’s very unique, and it’s a lot different than many other rivalries in the country.

The Chronicle: How do you think this compares to those other marquee rivalries in the country?

Johnson: I think it’s probably one of the top two or three in the country just because of how unique it is. The fact that the schools are so close to each other and the whole church-versus-state type of thing just makes this game one of the best in the country.

The Chronicle: As players, do you guys feed off that emotion and use it as fuel, or do you try to avoid the hype surrounding the game?

Johnson: I really don’t think there’s a way you can avoid the hype of this game. I think that kind of thing takes care of itself. The team usually just has to focus more and concentrate harder throughout the week to prepare for the game on Saturday. As a team, we can’t really let the hype get to us.

The Chronicle: Do you think the fact that you haven’t played against BYU yet in your college career will hurt you?

Johnson: No, I don’t think so. This will be my fourth year around this rivalry and around this game, and I’ve seen a lot. I just have to go in and prepare like it’s any other game and try to do the best I can.

The Chronicle: In 2005, Utah went into Provo and got the win. In 2006, BYU came into Salt Lake City and got the win. Is there any such thing as home-field advantage in this rivalry game?

Johnson: I really don’t think that’s a factor at all, especially with our team. We sort of feed off playing in other people’s places. We love the adversity, and we kind of play with a chip on our shoulder. We know it’ll be a hostile environment, and we know it’ll be crazy down there, but we’re ready for the challenge.

The Chronicle: Have you pulled out the game film from last year’s game at all?

Johnson: No, not at all. It’s kind of torture to watch it. That’s probably the worst feeling I’ve ever had, and I didn’t even play in the game. I haven’t pulled that tape out, and I probably won’t.

The Chronicle: Spoken like a guy who grew up a Utah fan, Brian. So, turning to the game, BYU’s run defense is one of the best in the country. How do you guys keep them guessing?

Johnson: We just have to stay balanced and know that it’s going to be tough to run the ball at the beginning of the game. But we’ve just got to keep pounding away at it and not give up on trying to run the football. We’ll do some things to try to throw them off, and we’ll do some things schematically that will cause them some issues, but I think the key is establishing a run game.

The Chronicle: So, with that running game, you’ve kind of been gradually worked back into the fold. Can we expect to continue to see that this week against BYU?

Johnson: I think it’ll definitely continue. The healthier I get each week, the more I’m able to do as far as the QB run game is concerned. So, I’ll probably have a little bit more this week than I had last week.

The Chronicle: As always, finish this thought: Utah will beat BYU if…

Johnson: If we don’t turn the ball over. I think that’s the key. Our defense is playing well right now, so if we don’t put them into a bad situation and give them long fields to work with, I think it’s definitely to our advantage. The other thing is that we have to find ways to score once we get into the red zone. That’s what it all comes down to.

The Chronicle: Want to throw a shout out or talk some trash to your cousin (Michael Reed) at BYU?

Johnson: (Laughing) Everybody knows I’m the best No. 3. He just got that number because he wants to be like me.

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Lennie Mahler