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Thunderstorm provides Utes a wild flight home

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Ed Ta'amu was plenty nervous about playing in his first game of the season last Saturday at Indiana.

The starting senior guard didn't even know for sure until last Thursday if he could play because the NCAA was slow in clearing him for an extra year.

"That first drive, I had a lot of butterflies in my stomach," said the starting left guard. "I was kind of rusty. For the first game, I was more nervous than for any other game."

But that couldn't compare to the panic he and the entire Ute traveling party felt Saturday night on their electrifyingflight home from Indianapolis following a 28-26 win.

"I was more nervous on the plane ride back. It was way scary," said Ta'amu.

Several described the flight as the worst they've ever been on, as the charter plane flew for possibly 20 minutes to an hour through a tremendous electrical storm. Lightning hit the plane a couple times and blew out one of the lights on one wing.

The Bloomington, Ind., airport isn't designed for large jets, so the Utes' 727 had to take off with only a half load of fuel. It was to stop at Lincoln, Neb., to refuel. Because of low fuel, the crew couldn't fly around or above the storm, so occupants rode out one of the roughest flights they can remember, dropping and bucking and with lightning flashes every few seconds.

"Doug (Kaufusi), Ma'ake (Kemoeatu) and myself were all sitting in the same row, and when we saw the lightning, we were all scared," Ta'amu said. "Flashes were going by about dying and stuff and all that tragedy in New York and the Pentagon. I don't think I've ever been scared in my life. I have a phobia about snakes, but that plane ride took (fear) to a new level."

Sports information director Liz Abel described the plane ride as being "dead silent. Not a peep. I'm not even sure anyone was breathing."

Defensive tackle Garrett Smith called it "a hellish ride. It was the scariest I've been in. It was dead quiet. Afterward it was so hectic with everyone running to the bathroom or looking out the window." Smith said quarterback/tight end J.D. Jorgensen was sitting over a wing and saw the lightning hit, heard a pop and saw part of the light fly off.

"It was kind of interesting," said coach Ron McBride, claiming he read his book throughout, trying to appear calm. "You try not to worry about it."

Afterward, he said nothing to the team. "Anything you'd say would be stupid. You've just got to try to pretend like everything is cool, just another day," he said.

HOME SWEET HOME: With three straight home games starting Saturday with the homecoming contest against New Mexico at 1 p.m., in Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utes don't have to get on another plane until they go to Colorado State for an Oct. 27 game.

Smith and Ta'amu, however, said it wouldn't bother them.

"I'd rather fly than bus," said Smith.

"Oh, I'm cool," Ta'amu said.

MORE SECURITY: Saturday's Rice-Eccles crowd will find more security and regulation in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist activity in New York and Washington, D.C. Uniformed police will be stationed outside stadium gates, and plainclothes FBI, Secret Service and Salt Lake Olympic Committee personnel will be inside and outside the stadium, which will be used during the February Olympics.

Coolers are now banned from the stadium, and backpacks are subject to search. The stadium is also a "no-fly" zone — no aircraft can be within three miles during a game.

Gates will be open 30 minutes earlier than in the past, two hours before kickoff.

OUCHIES: Running back MartyJohnson did not practice Tuesday and may not be ready to play yet. He suffered bruised ribs in the season opener and has missed two games . . . Receiver ParisJackson, who hurt a shoulder at Indiana, also did not practice Tuesday and underwent an MRI on the injury.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com