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Utes step up when challenged

A young team growing up. That's how defensive end Martail Burnett described Utah's 43-13 victory over Wyoming.

Saturday's win at Rice-Eccles Stadium featured many coming-of-age performances. None, however, proved as significant as that of sophomore quarterback Brian Johnson. The 18-year-old completed 32-of-45 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns. Eleven receivers had receptions for the Utes.

"We had two weeks to prepare for this defense," Utah receiver John Madsen said. "The whole time our coaches have been telling us that this is the No. 1 pass defense in our conference. As a receiving corps, we kind of took it upon ourselves that we had to have a good game in order for our team to win."

Johnson also led Utah's ground game with a team-high 67 yards and a score.

"The kid is phenomenal," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "For a sophomore to do the things he's doing, I couldn't be happier."

With the Utes (5-4 overall, 3-3 in Mountain West Conference play) in dire need of a victory, Johnson stepped up against a Wyoming defense that entered the game with the league's top-rated defense. He played like a veteran even though Utah was a bit shorthanded. Rushing leader Quinton Ganther, who dressed but did not play, was sidelined with a sore knee.

"Quinton is a great running back, and with him we're a much better team," said Madsen, who finished with a career-high 12 catches. "But on this team, if someone goes down, the next person has got to step up and do the job just that much harder. That's what we pride ourselves on doing."

Though relatively inexperienced backs Darrell Mack, Darryl Poston and Mike Liti teamed for 93 yards in the game, it was Johnson's decision-making that set the tone. For the first time this season, the Utes had no turnovers.

"We wanted to come out here and make a statement," Johnson said. "Everybody did a nice job of making plays and putting points on the board."

Johnson led the way by racking up 451 yards of total offense, the eighth-best performance in Utah history.

The Texan is also moving up the single-season record charts. His total yardage of 3,053 ranks sixth, his 193 completions rank seventh, and 2,532 passing yards are ninth overall.

More importantly, however, is Utah's ongoing bid for a bowl berth.

"Definitely. That's what we're striving for. We want to finish things out right," Johnson said. "So we'll just have to grind. Whoever comes in next week, we'll be ready for those guys and have to go out there and put together another performance like we did (Saturday)."

New Mexico represents the encore. The Utes and Lobos square off Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"We've put ourselves in good position to try to make something good happen at the end of this year. So we've just got to continue to work hard in practice," Whittingham said. "I think we had the best week of practice we've had all year long, this past week. The players were focused. They worked hard. As long as they continue to do that we've got a shot."

The Utes become bowl-eligible with a victory. They'll likely have Ganther back for their quest.

Whittingham said Ganther probably could have played against Wyoming. The senior captain participated in pregame warm-ups and stood on the sideline in full uniform throughout the contest.

"It (was) in his best interest and our best interest to sit him out and get him completely ready, hopefully, for next week," Whittingham said.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com