Two very evenly matched teams, on paper at least, met at Rice-Eccles stadium Saturday afternoon, each with must-win consequences. Despite their even appearance, the result on the field wasn't close. In the game that, according to many pre-season publications, would decide the conference championship, Utah played perhaps their best football of the season, crushing the Wyoming Cowboys 43-13.
Quarterback Brian Johnson was pulled midway through the fourth quarter, after a career performance from the rising sophomore star, and Utah methodically ran the clock and kept the Cowboy offense off the field.
Johnson, who eclipsed 450 yards of total offense, played a nearly perfect game that included four touchdown passes and a touchdown run for good measure.
The game began as many figured it would, a tight back and forth affair, with Wyoming taking an early 6-3 lead off a pair of Deric Yaussi field goals. After a long Dan Beardall field goal tied it at 6, Utah's defense stiffened and the offense began to click. Adjusting the game plan to compensate for the loss of leading rusher Quinton Ganther, Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig resorted to a throw first, run-second scheme that moved the ball downfield effectively late in the second quarter, and a Johnson to John Madsen strike made the score 13-6. Wyoming's star receiver/return man Jovon Bouknight then gave the Cowboys a great chance for the equalizer, returning the ensuing kickoff to the Wyoming 45 yard-line.
However, Utah's defense responded with perhaps its best series of the entire season, putting pressure on (Wyoming QB) Corey Bramlett on all 3 plays, two of which resulted in sacks. The Utes were then aided by a shanked punt that gave them the ball at their own 40 with just over a minute until intermission.
On this possession, Johnson attacked with his feet, scrambling 20 yards to the Wyoming 40. He then managed the clock effectively to get deep into Cowboy territory. A series of successful pass plays got the Utes close, and Johnson found John Madsen again with just 11 ticks left until halftime.
On the first possession of the second half, the Utes picked up right where they left off and marched 80 yards in just over 3 minutes and a once-close contest was now a 3 touchdown margin. From there the Utes used an assortment of plays including some of the first tight end passes of the year and several effective screens and options to continue to roll past Wyoming.
The Cowboys finally got their first touchdown in the last minute of the 3rd quarter, but Utah responded with a touchdown of their own on another long drive that culminated in a play-action short yardage touchdown pass from Johnson to first-year tight end Ameen Shaheen. In the end, a Ute offense without Ganther and sure-handed receiver Travis LaTendresse racked up more than 550 yards, and looked very confident going into the final critical two games of the year.
Keys to Victory
Eric Weddle's performance on star Cowboy receiver Bouknight was the key to Utah's superb defensive play. Weddle locked up the receiver with single coverage and set the tone early, batting away several passes headed in Bouknight's direction early. On the night, Bouknight was held to just four catches for 43 yards. Weddle also added a sack on a corner blitz and another tackle for loss in a signature game for the heralded junior.
Utah's offense played exceptionally well for the third straight week. Brian Johnson enjoyed his most complete, error-free game, throwing the ball to eleven different receivers. Andy Ludwig's play-calling was superb and kept Wyoming off-balance for most of the night.
Finally, Utah's defensive line was able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback, even in non-blitzing situations. This allowed the cornerbacks to press up and resulted in several hurried throws, three sacks, and an interception on an errant throw which Casey Evans ran back for 18 yards.
Wyoming, now mired in a 4-game losing streak with a suddenly shaken defense, must try to regroup next week against a BYU offense that has scored 117 points in their last two games. Utah hopes to keep their win streak going as well and become bowl eligible next week with a win over New Mexico. A performance like today's would likely ensure that outcome.