Nov 30, 2013; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes co-offensive coordinator Brian Johnson during the first half against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Editor’s Note: My good friend and brother from another mother Raider Ute, in between duties as a newlywed and hot shot TV operator, came up with an interesting concept, essentially alternate histories for different aspects of Utah Athletics. Considering I find the What If questions interesting and decided that they’d be a nice off-season feature for Wednesdays. His first one is, what if Brian Johnson is never injured. Young Raider will grace us with these when his schedule and lovely new wife allow.
Recently, I got mired into a somewhat detailed, but very fascinating alternate baseball history over at The Hardball Times. Of all types of fiction, alternate history is a personal favorite of mine. For my money at least, you can’t go wrong with a story in which Tommy Lasorda gets fired sometime before the 1983 season. Sports, in my opinion, are a fantastic avenue for this genre of, to put it spiritually, being able to know the end from the beginning. You can try this one on your own, but play out in your mind what would have happened to the NBA if the Boston Celtics win the 1997 Draft Lottery and they, not the Spurs, take Tim Duncan. You’re welcome.
Not surprisingly, then, the Utes in both football and basketball have their own “what if”’s. Ute fans have been through a lot of them over the years—what if the 1994 football team goes undefeated, what if the Utes hang on in the 1998 NCAA Title game, what if O.J. Simpson plays at Utah, and so on. But some of them are a lot more subtle. Let us now holla at our boy Mr. Peabody, hit up the Wayback Machine and travel back to November 12, 2005.
There’s three minutes left in the game and the Utes trail New Mexico, a recent arch-nemesis in football, 31-27. It’s been a rough game for sophomore quarterback Brian Johnson, another in a recent string of rough games for him this season. All told, though, for a kid who is still very new at this whole D-I college football quarterback thing, it’s not that bad. Here is a golden opportunity for Brian to lead a drive to potentially win the game and make the Utes bowl eligible against a UNM squad that has managed to come back from two scored down to take the lead. The Utes are on their own seven yard line where Johnson completes a pass to Travis LaTendresse for 19 yards. Two plays later, Marquis Wilson comes up with another first down reception. Utes are driving…or they were until Johnson throws two straight incompletions and follows that up with a sack on 3rd down. With 4th and 16 and the game on the line, the Utes call timeout.
We know what happens after this point. Brian Johnson comes up short of the first down, but thanks to a personal foul call on the Lobos, the Utes get new life and a fresh set of downs. All, however, at the price of a Brian Johnson torn ACL. The Utes would lose the game to the Lobos and set up what appeared to be a dead team walking going into Provo against BYU, a game where the Utes would win in overtime the very next week.
And here we come to our “what if”. What if Brian Johnson doesn’t tear his ACL in that game? What would have been different with not only Ute football, but Ute athletics as a whole? Let’s start with that play on 4th and 16 and see what would have happened.
Brian Johnson: the Boy Wonder
With what appears to be the season on the line, Brian has a long way to go and a short time to get there. But with this play, Travis LaTendresse breaks free over the middle. Johnson, as James Bates would have put it, “finds his guy” and it’s a first down for the Utes at mid field. Tick tock…
Marquis Wilson catches an out route at right around the New Mexico 35. Tick tock…
In a big mistake by the Lobo defense, Freddie Brown gets behind a defender and gets the Utes in the red zone with a completion for 20 yards. Less than a minute left, and Brian spikes the ball. Three shots at the end zone to win the game.
2nd down, Johnson throws a pass just out of the reach of Marquis Wilson.
3rd down, Johnson looks again to find paydirt. BJ fires a bullet into the endzone, in between two defenders and pulls it off…Touchdown grab, Travis LaTendresse! The Utes take the lead 33-31. Kyle elects to go for two, which is successful thanks to a scamper by Quinton Ganther. The Utes would take the lead 35-31 and stop the Lobos after a DonTrelle Moore fumble (thanks to a very opportune strip of the ball by Eric Weddle) to set up a very rewarding victory formation for the Utes young—and now bowl eligible—quarterback.
The alternate-2005 Holy War: Surprise, Surprise!
So much of what made the 2005 Utah/BYU game such a memorable one was how much of the element of surprise factored into it. As we know, the Utes in reality jumped out to a big lead in that game, only to have the Cougars come back and set up an overtime for the ages and a 41-34 surprise victory. In our alternate 2005 rivalry tilt, a little more conventionality comes into play. The confidence Johnson finds in his previous week’s last second win against New Mexico confounds him against BYU as he throws a 4th quarter interception and the Provo faithful have a very nice time at the BYU Creamery celebrating a 24-17 victory. You all can debate on what they would have nicknamed this victory in your own imagination.
In my alternative scenario, I don’t think the bowl game would have changed all that much. The Emerald Bowl against Georgia Tech is still a likely destination, although I think in the alternate-Emerald Bowl, Bay Area native Quinton Ganther has a banner day on the soggy AT&T Park turf to help the Utes to a 27-10 final score instead of 38-10.
This sets up an alternate 2006 season that has every bit the potential that the actual 2006 season had.
2006: A Potential Return To The Top
(Sidebar: I’m not entirely certain who if anyone would have decommitted or been signed with this scenario different from what occurred in reality. If you have any insight on that, yell at me on Twitter @RaiderUte. Thanks.) Not a whole lot changes recruiting wise from the real 2006 class and the alt-06 class (this was the class that brought us Zane Taylor, Stevenson Sylvester, Joe Dale and Neil A’asa, to name a few). Boise State still gets added to the schedule in February of this season. Tommy Grady & Brett Ratliff would still be on the roster and by and large, this doesn’t appear to be that bad of a team.
UCLA at the Rose Bowl is a game where Brian Johnson makes huge strides as a now junior QB. A few defensive lapses can’t help but impress much of the college football world as to how poised Johnson looks as the signal caller. With a 28-27 deficit and a minute left in the game, Kyle elects to run the football on 2nd and 2 with a chance to set up a game winning field goal. In a surprise move, Eric Weddle comes in at running back. Trying to find a hole, the ball slips out of Weddle’s hands, the Bruins recover the fumble and take over. UCLA wins by a single point. Kyle would never use Weddle on the offensive side of the ball for the rest of his college career.
Easy wins over Northern Arizona, Utah State and San Diego State set up a showdown against Boise State. In my own head, I can’t quite flip this game in favor of the Utes—Curse of Boise and all—but the alternate 06 Utes take a 21-17 lead into the 4th quarter with the Broncos claiming a pretty ridiculous time of possession in the 4th quarter (12:10 to Utah’s 2:50). Jared Zabransky has a decent day through the air, but it is the running game that rules the day for Boise State. Ian Johnson tacks on an exclamation score late to give the Broncos a 31-21 victory.
Despite the close losses so far, the Utes look a lot more polished as a team than they did in 2005 as well as the reality-based 2006. The conference schedule in the alternate-2006 proves much more kind, as the Utes rattle off six straight victories, including some prolific blowout wins against New Mexico and Wyoming and as is the tradition, a much closer win against Air Force than we’d like, but it’s 24-14 rather than 17-14 as the real 2006 Utes endured.
Hopefully by now you are figuring out what this sets up. Utah. BYU. In essence, a de facto MWC Championship Game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Cougars have won 8 in a row, the Utes 6 in a row. Both are 9-2 going into a potential Holy War for the ages. Brian Johnson. John Beck. Two second-year coaches and a whole lot of smack talk with a whole lot on the line. How does it all go down?
Part II forthcoming…