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Ute football: A House Party

Published August 31, 2008 3:28 am

Utes trump Wolverines with 25-23 victory in The Big House
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Utah quarterback Brian Johnson stood in the Michigan end zone listening to the cheers of Utah's fans and looking at the scoreboard after Utah's 25-23 win Saturday. He was soaking in the atmosphere of what he called his biggest win when he was brought back to reality by a Michigan reporter's question.

"So how does Michigan's defense compare to the ones you face in the WAC," he asked Johnson.

"Nobody knows us, still," Johnson said, shaking his head.

No, apparently not all know that Utah is from the Mountain West, have a great quarterback and one of the toughest defenses in the country. But if the Utes can keep winning games like Saturday's, college football fans all over will soon know about the Utes.

Facing a Michigan team intent to erase the memories of their horrible start of 2007, the Utes instead added to the Wolverines' misery by taking a 25-23 win in front of the usual Michigan Stadium sellout - this one numbering 108,421.

"We knew we had one chance to do this," Utah offensive lineman Zane Beadles said. "We have a veteran group and we know how to win."

Michigan's fans packed the Big House well before kickoff expecting their team to know how to win too. They had the leadership of new coach Rich Rodriguez and a highly touted defense, but the Wolverines were missing a key element - a seasoned quarterback who could run the offense confidently who knew when to run and where to pass.

They needed a quarterback the caliber of Johnson.

Playing injury-free for the first time since the 2007 opener, Johnson finished 21-for-33 for 305 yards, an interception and a touchdown.

Johnson's TD pass was a 19-yarder to Bradon Godfrey with 13 seconds left before halftime.

"This is right up there with the Louisville win," Johnson said, referring to the Utes' 44-35 win over the Cardinals last season. "I'll remember this for the rest of my life."

It could be just the start of a season full of memories for the Utes. They'll probably break into the Top 25 today and showed the potential of meeting all the hype surrounding them. At least for a day, the BCS hopes are alive and well, not that coach Kyle Whittingham wants to hear about it.

"It's not even in our vocabulary," he said. "That is absurd to talk in those terms right now. We have played one good football team and won one on the road which is nice, but we have 11 left."

They still have some improving to do too. As well as the offense moved the ball for most of the game, Utah had trouble getting the ball in the end zone. Luckily the Utes had two other strengths - Louie Sakoda and a seasoned defense. Sakoda kicked field goals of 28, 41, 43 and 53 yards, with the last being the longest of his career. It also put the Utes up 25-10 in the third quarter.

By then, the game seemed all but lost for the Wolverines, who had replaced starting quarterback Nick Sheridan with Steven Threet but couldn't find a way to move the ball. Through three quarters, the Wolverines had only 26 yards rushing and 126 passing.

To avoid their second season-opening loss in a row, the Wolverines needed some sort of game-changing play. It came in the form of a blocked punt on Sakoda.

Michigan recovered on Utah's 33-yard line. On the following play Threet threw a touchdown pass to Junior Hemingway, cutting Utah's lead to 25-17.

Sensing its moment, Michigan's defense played its best series and sacked Johnson on third-and-15. Johnson fumbled and Michigan recovered on Utah's 31-yard line.

The series was one of the few times Utah's defense lost its composure, committing a 15-yard facemask penalty and a 15-yard pass-interference penalty that moved the ball inside Utah's 5-yard line. Freshman Sam McGuffie ran the ball in from there, making it 25-23 with 6:26 remaining.

That was plenty of time for the Wolverines to finish off the comeback, only Utah's defense wouldn't allow it. Utah's offense stalled, failing to get a first down on its next three possessions, but the defense wouldn't allow the Wolverines to move the ball either.

The game ended when Utah's R.J. Stanford wrapped up receiver Michael Shaw after a 7-yard gain.

The Wolverines needed more, much more than that, to beat the Utes.

lwodraska@sltrib.com