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Shaky start, smooth finish for new Ute QB

Brian Johnson admits he was shaky early in Utah's 27-24 win over Arizona. The 18-year-old quarterback's first collegiate start began with a lost-yardage handoff to Quinton Ganther and three consecutive incompletions. Later in the first quarter, Johnson fumbled a snap.

Things, however, eventually turned positive for the sophomore. Johnson wound up completing 19-of-30 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown in guiding the Utes to a school-record 17th consecutive victory. He also rushed for 18 yards on five carries.

"I'm not quite where I want to be. But I can improve," Johnson said. "I started out shaky, but after those first couple of series I was able to settle down."

After netting just 66 yards on their first 23 plays, the Utes racked up 246 on their next 23.

"We have faith in him," Ganther said. "He held his composure tonight."

Johnson, who was top NFL draft pick Alex Smith's understudy last season, earned strong praise from Arizona coach Mike Stoops.

"Utah looks similar to last year," he said. "Brian Johnson is a much better runner and throws the ball almost as well as Smith."

Johnson saw extremely limited action as a freshman. With 13:05 remaining in the second quarter Friday, he had already posted career highs in completions, passing attempts and yardage in a game.

Before leaving the field, Johnson had surpassed all of his totals from last season.

"Brian Johnson played well along with the rest of the team," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who also made a successful debut.

Whittingham is the fifth consecutive Ute football coach — joining Urban Meyer, Ron McBride, Jim Fassel and Chuck Stobart — to win his first game at the helm.

Like Johnson, though, Whittingham is far from satisfied.

"It's great to get this first win under our belt," He said. "But we have a lot of work to do."

The Utes resume practice Monday in preparation for Saturday's home game against Utah State (6 p.m., KJZZ, Ch. 14).

RUNNIN' UTE: Ganther's bid to become Utah's first 1,000-yard rusher since Dameon Hunter in 2001 is off to a good start. After his game-high 127-yard performance against Arizona, the senior needs to average just 87.3 yards over the next 10 games to reach the milestone — a figure lessened by the addition of a bowl game.

Ganther, however, isn't concerned about such things. The team captain insists winning games is all that matters.

On Friday, he did both.

"Quinton Ganther carried us tonight," Whittingham said.

With back-ups Darryl Poston and Mike Liti sidelined with injuries, Ganther had 24 of Utah's 38 carries in the game. Redshirt freshman Brent Casteel finished with 74 yards rushing and a touchdown, while Darrell Mack added nine yards. Casteel and Mack carried the ball four and two times, respectively.

EXTRA POINTS: Senior Travis LaTendresse led seven Utes who made catches in the game with five receptions for 69 yards. Brian Hernandez made four catches and John Madsen, who missed most of camp with a pulled hamstring, had three . . . Senior defensive end Kite Afeaki overcame a sprained left shoulder to make two tackles for loss, including a quarterback sack . . . Paul Soliai had Utah's other sack . . . Eric Weddle made 10 tackles, returned an interception for a touchdown and forced a fumble . . . Utah has now won four straight games against Pac-10 opponents. The Utes visit UCLA next season . . . The Utes lead the all-time series with Arizona 19-15-2.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com