Oct 12, 2013 Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes cheerleaders lead the team onto the field prior to a game against the Stanford Cardinal at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah defeated Stanford 27-21. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
We have now come to the third installment of my Ute Football Alternate History. If you can recall my initial entry, this all started with a simple question: what if Brian Johnson doesn’t tear his ACL against New Mexico in the 2005 season? Let us recap what we have witness in my little slice of historical fiction. We have seen:
–A comeback victory lead by Johnson against New Mexico, only to lose the very next week in Provo against BYU.
–Two very close losses in non-conference play in 2006 against UCLA and Boise State.
–Some likelihood that Andy Ludwig would not have been Public Enemy #1 with the Ute fan base.
–Neither would Johnny Harline, as the alternate 2006 Holy War produced perhaps the greatest game ever seen in the rivalry’s history.
–The third Mountain West championship in four seasons for the Utes, setting up a alternate 2007 senior campaign for Brian Johnson that could cement his place in Ute football history.
As Ute fans are acutely aware, the actual 2007 season was, as my Dad would probably describe it, “caddywompis”. Johnson separates his shoulder in the season opener against Oregon State and misses six weeks of action. In that same game, RB Matt Asiata tears his ACL and is out for the remainder of the season. Starting from behind this particular 8 ball, it does seem rather incredible that a) the Utes would beat UCLA soon after Johnson goes down and that b) the Utes would rattle off seven straight victories after a devastating loss to UNLV, only the second time in the entire history of Rebel football that they mustered up a victory against the Utes. So let us go now to the alternate 2007 Ute football season and see if it is any less caddywompisy.
(I’m pretty sure “caddywompisy” is a real word. Or at least it should be.)
August 30, 2007 is now upon us. The Utes arrive in Reser Stadium in Corvallis to open up a defense of the Mountain West championship, but for senior QB Brian Johnson, a signature non-conference victory still eludes him. His alt-2006 team had two great chances to beat UCLA in Pasadena and to beat Boise State team at home that would go on to an undefeated and Fiesta Bowl winning season. Here is another opportunity for the Johnson-era Utes to beat a BCS opponent and get back to some sort of national prominence from the undefeated 2004 season. As Beaver RB Yvenson Bernard runs wild on the Ute defense, Johnson and the passing game are up to the task. They would need to be after the eventual season-ending injury to RB Matt Asiata.
With the Beavers up 27-24, Johnson leads the Utes on a final drive to try and win the game. Inside Beaver territory, the Utes have a chance to set up a game-tying field goal. As Johnson goes back to pass, his pass is tipped at the line for an incomplete pass…or that’s what should have been called. Oregon State recovered a ball that was ruled a fumble by the Pac-10 officiating crew. Video evidence indicated that the ball had been tipped as Johnson threw it, but the call stood and the Beavers took over. The Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune had much more docile headlines after the game, but the Utah Chronicle put it best with theirs: “SCREWED”.
After a relatively easy win against Air Force, the highly touted and highly ranked UCLA Bruins come to Rice-Eccles Stadium. This game would prove to be the best day of Johnson’s career, throwing for over 400 yards as the Ute defense forced several turnovers on Bruin QB Ben Olson. The alt-2007 game against the Bruins was a slightly bigger blowout than the actual 2007 game, but a 52-10 score became the biggest regular season non-conference victory in Johnson’s alternate career as the Ute signal caller.
On to Las Vegas, where the Utes received a bit of a scare against a UNLV team that had been almost a gimme since they made their move to the then WAC and eventual Mountain West. Rebel RB Frank Summers runs for a cool 175 yards but with the game tied at 27, the Utes have a chance to win the game. UNLV couldn’t stop the passing attack lead by Johnson and his go-to wideout, Brent Casteel. Running out of time, Ute kicker Louie Sakoda sets up a potential game-winning field goal. His streak of made field goals after his miss in the opener against Oregon State would continue, as the Utes leave Las Vegas with a 30-27 victory.
The worries of Ute fans would not last for a whole lot longer, as the Utes rattle off an impressive string of 10 straight victories. But as occurred in the alternate 2006 season, this sets up a de facto Mountain West Championship game at Lavell Edwards Stadium against BYU. Many Cougar fans–being Cougar fans and all–contend that the Utes got lucky in the alt-2006 title game after John Beck “gave” the Utes the Mountain West title. But this was a game where Cougar RB Harvey Unga would shoulder much of the load for the BYU offense, keeping the high-powered Ute offense off the field as much as possible. This also kept a solid, but inexperienced QB Max Hall away from the field and getting pummeled by a Ute pass rush hell bent on getting into the pocket.
With a 24-20 Cougar lead and a few minutes remaining in the 4th quarter, Johnson has another potential 4th quarter comeback in the making. Starting at their own 11 yard line, the Utes have marched a smidgen over 80 yards in less than one minute. The Utes now have 1:13 left on first and goal to get into the endzone. BYU has two timeouts at their disposal. Sensing this, Darrell Mack runs the football up the middle on first down. BYU calls timeout. Second down, Johnson throws a pass in the flat to Elijah Wesson, who nearly fumbles the ball. Third down, with less than 30 seconds left, Johnson tries to find Bradon Godfrey in the back of the endzone and is nearly intercepted. It’s 4th down and 22 seconds remain in the game.
As Brian steps back to pass, the pocket collapses and he’s forced to scramble. Toward the right side of the field he noticed a wide open receiver near the corner of the endzone. Johnson rifles the ball toward the right pylon, hoping this will be enough…and it was. Brent Casteel tip-toed the pylon and scored. Touchdown Utah. 27-24 the Utes have the lead, giving the Cougars 12 seconds to try and get into field goal range. Max Hall completes a pass to Austin Collie for 49 yards to get BYU somewhere close to field goal range, but the incredibly desperate 67 yard field goal from Mitch Payne falls well short. The Utes claim the Mountain West title for the second year in a row.
This seems like a good place to end this particular alternate history, as we now have a theoretical alternative to what Brian Johnson’s career might have looked like had he not torn his ACL back in 2005 against New Mexico. With all of this now having been written, I feel as though a few questions to get some discussion going would be worthwhile. Consider:
–Obviously, an undefeated season in 2008 with J0hnson’s actual senior year wouldn’t have happened. How much different would a 2008 season have looked with a new quarterback? (Based on the 2007 recruiting class, it would have been with either Corbin Louks, Chad Manis or Griff Robles starting the season opener against Michigan that year).
–Would Ute fans look upon Johnson’s career at Utah differently without a 2008 undefeated season and Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama? Keep in mind that at least in the story I have posted here that it would have been a Brian Johnson with back to back MWC titles and a couple of solid Las Vegas Bowl victories.
–Would this have had any impact on the Pac-12 invite? My thinking is that it probably wouldn’t have, because 2004 would have been fresh in the minds of enough people–and certainly Larry Scott–to make it less of a problem.
–4 MWC championships in 5 seasons for the Utes–or a repeat repeat if you’re down for redundancy–is a potential dynasty in the making. While I don’t think it would be a certainty that Kyle would have stayed at Utah, would a school (maybe Tennessee) have made him an offer he simply couldn’t refuse?
I will have much more during this offseason and many more alternate histories and Ute athletic moments of lore that you either forgot or wanted to forget. Feel free to leave comments below.