Utah’s season ends with a satisfied Brian Johnson

By Joe Beatty, Special to The Chronicle

NEW ORLEANS — On September 2, 2004, a 17-year-old kid named Brian Johnson completed one of his two passes for a modest 11 yards in Utah’s season-opening win over Texas A&M.

Now look at him.

The quarterback who was deemed too small and too skinny by recruiters is now two-for-two in BCS games. Johnson racked up 336 passing yards &- 62 more than any other quarterback had managed against Alabama this season &- and three touchdowns in Utah’s 31-17 Sugar Bowl win over the Crimson Tide, putting an exclamation point on his marathon collegiate career.

“Brian Johnson has meant everything to this football team,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “He is the winningest quarterback in Utah football history and in my opinion that is the single most important barometer to rate a quarterback.”

Throughout Utah’s 2008 march back to the BCS, Johnson has gained a reputation for being at his best when running the two-minute offense. With the Utes facing their biggest game in program history on Friday night, the team figured, why not eat dessert first?

Johnson went 5-for-5 on Utah’s opening drive, never retreating back to the huddle and never letting the shell-shocked Alabama defense get prepared. The end result was a tone-setting seven-yard touchdown pass to Brent Casteel and a stunned swath of Alabama fans that had been roiling and rolling a few moments prior.

“The coaches gave me the option to jump in the two-minute [offense] the last couple of weeks and just go with it and play fast,” Johnson said. “It was a situation where we got a fast start, got the touchdown, and definitely had the momentum in our favor in the first quarter.”

The quick start didn’t stop there, as Johnson spread the Tide thin, putting the Utes up 21-0 at the end of the first quarter. It was a lead Alabama couldn’t recover from, giving Johnson his 26th win as a Utah starter.

Johnson never let the Alabama defense get in a rhythm, connecting with seven different receivers on his way to completing 27 of his 41 passes.

It begs the question, after five years in the Utah system, after being behind the helm for all those wins, was Johnson running the spread offense or was he running the Brian Johnson offense?

“[Johnson] was part of putting this offensive system together. It was designed for him and today he highlighted that,” Outgoing Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said.

Back in that 2004 win over A&M Johnson was mopping up after No. 1 pick-to-be Alex Smith. In 2005 he suffered a knee injury that took him nearly two years to fully recover from. Now Johnson leaves Utah with a Sugar Bowl MVP trophy and an endorsement from Alabama coach Nick Saban who called Johnson “the best quarterback we played against all year.”

For Johnson and the Utes, it’s been quite the ride.

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