Utes: So, what now?
The Utah Utes are reeling like never before this season, heading into their annual rivalry showdown at Brigham Young next weekend without quarterback Brian Johnson and leading receiver John Madsen - both injured during a 31-27 loss to New Mexico at Rice-Eccles Stadium that might have cost them a trip to a bowl game.
And just like that, the prospects for a fourth straight victory over the Cougars - the Utes haven't done that in 34 years - and a triumphant end to a trying season appear to be all but dashed. Quarterback Brett Ratliff is set to make his first start for the Utes while the coaching staff tries to formulate a game plan that suits his drop-back style, but there was none of the usual pre-rivalry bravado in the moments after the stunning and devastating loss to the Lobos.
"We're going to have to sit down and think long and hard about what we're going to do," coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It's going to change things, I can tell you that. How dramatically will remain to be seen, but Brett Ratliff is a different style of quarterback than Brian Johnson is. We're going to have to tailor some things around him, and adapt."
Technically, the 5-5 Utes can become eligible for a bowl game and clinch a winning season if they beat the Cougars - but the likelihood of that appeared suspect even before Johnson was hurt in the fourth quarter against the Lobos.
The Utes had ground to a halt on offense against a blitzing defense that's almost identical to the one the Cougars run, and they fell back into a painful pattern of committing crucial turnovers at the worst times.
Of the five they committed against New Mexico, the Lobos returned two for touchdowns and eventually turned two others into scores.
Meanwhile, Johnson is scheduled for a magnetic resonance imaging test today to learn whether his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee is torn as expected, while Madsen will undergo surgery to repair his broken left ankle. Johnson will need surgery, too, Whittingham said.
"We still have our heads up," running back Quinton Ganther insisted. "We have to play for pride - win next week and maybe get a bowl game, but it's not guaranteed. Hey, you have to come out and play the game, and it's the most important game of the season."
Even if the Utes win, though, they're not assured of reaching a bowl game.
Presuming league champion Texas Christian winds up in either the Liberty Bowl or the Houston Bowl as expected, they need Colorado State to lose its finale at last-place UNLV on Saturday to avoid having to compete for the Mountain West Conference's final guaranteed bowl spot in either the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco or the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.
"There's a chance," defensive lineman Steve Fifita said. "With all the bowl games out there, there is a shot, but all we can really worry about is BYU."
Indeed, all of those scenarios don't matter if the Utes can't beat the Cougars - and that is going to depend on a junior-college transfer quarterback who has taken perhaps two dozen snaps this season and typically takes no more than a third of the reps in practice during the week.
Reporter Michael C. Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more about the Utes, go to his blog at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs. To write a letter about the Utes or any sports topic, send an e-mail to email@example.com.
5-5 (3-4 Mountain West)
Sept. 2 Arizona W, 27-24
Last Game: L, 38-14 vs. Washington
Record: 3-7 Next: at Arizona St., Nov. 25
Sept. 10 Utah State W, 31-7
Last Game: L, 50-23 at Hawaii
Record: 2-7 Next: vs. Nevada, Saturday
Sept. 15 at TCU L, 23-20
Last Game: W, 51-3 vs. UNLV
Record: 10-1 Next: Season complete
Sept. 22 Air Force W, 38-35
Last Game: L, 27-24 at Army
Record: 3-7 Next: at New Mexico, Sat.
Oct. 1 at North Carolina L, 31-17
Last Game: L, 33-30 vs. Maryland
Record: 4-5 Next: vs. Duke, Saturday
Oct. 8 at Colorado St. L, 21-17
Last Game: L, 30-10 vs. San Diego State
Record: 5-5 Next: at UNLV, Saturday
Oct. 15 San Diego State L, 28-19
Last Game: W, 30-10 at Colorado State
Record: 4-6 Next: vs. Wyoming, Saturday
Oct. 22 at UNLV W, 42-32
Last Game: L, 51-3 at TCU
Record: 2-8 Next: vs. Colorado St., Sat.
Nov. 5 Wyoming W, 43-13
Last Game: L, 35-21 vs. BYU
Record: 4-6 Next: at San Diego St., Sat.
Nov. 12 New Mexico L, 31-27
Last Game: W, 31-27 at Utah
Record: 6-4 Next: vs. Air Force, Saturday
Nov. 19 at BYU 1 p.m.
Last Game: W, 35-21 at Wyoming
Record: 6-4 Next: vs. Utah, Saturday
Turning the Keys
1. Less is Moore
The Utes did a fine job containing New Mexico's DonTrell Moore, holding the league's leading rusher to 70 yards on 25 carries.
2. Don't lose the groove
Quarterback Brian Johnson had the Utes rolling in the first half, throwing four touchdowns on big pass plays while piling up 300 yards of offense. But after halftime? The Utes ground to a halt against New Mexico's blitz pressure, did not score a point and lost Johnson to a season-ending knee injury.
3. No Basketts
Safety Eric Weddle contained New Mexico's Hank Baskett for most of the night, but the league's leading receiver ultimately shook loose for a 50-yard touchdown pass.