This is a three part series looking at Utah football over the past 5 years, part 3 focuses on Kyle Whittingham's first season. Part 1 can be read here and part 2 here.
Urban Meyer had bolted for Florida, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford was now the head coach of UNLV and stud quarterback Alex Smith was readying himself for a pro career. The Utes had lost nearly everything that made them so great in 2004 and it was Kyle Whittingham's task to essentially start over. Not only would Whittingham have to replace most of Utah's offense, he also lost key defensive players and nearly every coach.
2005 was more than a transition year for the Utes, it would turn out to be a rebuilding year as well. Whittingham quickly hired Oregon offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to lead Utah's explosive offense, while Gary Andersen was promoted to Utah's defensive coordinator, a position Whittingham had held at Utah for 10 years. But while these coaching changes were important and proved -- in time anyway -- to be successful, the biggest change for the Utes came from the leader of their offense. Alex Smith, the best quarterback in Utah history, only lost once as starter for the University of Utah and guided the offense toward the top of the nation in terms of production and points per game. Replacing him was not going to be easy and the man to do it had minimal playing experience at the collegiate level.
The Utes choice was obvious, Brian Johnson -- a backup to Alex Smith during the 2004 season -- would take over Utah's offense and run the complicated spread option. His first test as Utah's starter would come live on national television, as the Utes took on the hungry Arizona Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The year prior, Utah had rolled the Wildcats down in Tucson on their way to a perfect season and it was thought this Arizona team would be a much tougher match for the Utes.
Not only was this Brian Johnson's first game as a Ute, it was also Kyle Whittingham's first game as a head coach. A capacity crowd -- 2nd largest in school history -- packed into Rice-Eccles Stadium to watch Utah run their winning streak to 17 games, which at the time was 2nd only to USC in the nation.
The game turned out to be a battle, as the Utes opened up a 27-10 lead on the Wildcats before they mounted a feverish rally. Brian Johnson in his debut passed for 220 yards and a touchdown, as the Utes won 27-24. With the victory, Kyle Whittingham and the Utes were 1-0 and looking toward yet another solid season.
The Streak Ends
The Utes ran their record to 2-0 before meeting their new Mountain West Conference foe TCU in Fort Worth. Texas Christian, fresh off a loss to SMU -- a week prior they had in fact upset top-10 ranked Oklahoma on the road -- were looking to kick off their new conference with a big win. The Utes, having won 18 straight, were looking to prove they were still the top dog in the Mountain West Conference. What would unfold during that hot and humid night was an epic battle between two very strong teams. The Utes built a solid lead, only to watch TCU claw their way back into the game, forcing overtime. After a quick FG, it was now up to Utah's defense to get the job done and unfortunately they could not stop TCU, as the Frogs trampled their way into the endzone for the win. Utah's 18 game winning streak was over and now the Utes found themselves starting the conference season 0-1.
The TCU game signaled to the world that the Utes were in fact mortal. After going 22-2 over the past two seasons, it was a complete blow to the morale of the team and with their confidence waned, Coach Whittingham would have to guide Utah through their toughest stretch in 3 seasons.
Utah followed up the loss against TCU with a solid win over Air Force, but from there they hit a wall. Whether it was pure lack of confidence, youth or a mix of both, Utah's season went from successful to one shrouded in doubt. The Utes blew a late lead against North Carolina, watching what looked to be a solid victory turn into a horrible loss. A week later, Utah was denied a goal line score in the final seconds on the road against CSU. The Utes had positioned themselves to win the game, but failed to score on any of their downs. And what would become the worst game of the season, Utah would field a lackluster squad that eventually was embarrassed by a mediocre San Diego State team at home. And just like that, the Utes found themselves with a 3-4 record and everything they did so well in 2003 and 2004 had evaded them in 2005.
A demoralizing loss to San Diego State would prove to be the wake up call Utah needed. Two weeks later, the Utes rolled into Vegas and beat up on the team that they hadn't lost to since the 1970s and then a week later dominated a below average Wyoming team, giving them their worst loss of the season. Suddenly, the Utes were flying high after two blowout wins and a 5-4 record. Then, when it looked as if the Utes had finally turned a corner, their house of cards came tumbling down. Against the Lobos in Salt Lake City, Utah's offensive line struggled at protecting quarterback Brian Johnson and the success of Utah's defense, particularly in stopping star running back DonTrell Moore, could not save the Utes sloppy offensive play. Then things went from bad to worse for Utah.
Driving toward a potential game winning score, Utah quarterback Brian Johnson drove for the sidelines, where he was hit and suffered a massive knee injury. The Utes now were without their start quarterback and worse, were on the verge of the school's first losing campaign since going 5-6 in 2002. The Utes also had to deal with the fact that they lost arguably their best wide receiver, John Madsen, earlier in the game. Now, with the loss to New Mexico, Utah would need a flawless performance against BYU to salvage any hope of a winning season.
The Greatest Holy War Ever?
Brian Johnson and John Madsen were done for the season and Utah was one loss away from a losing record. The season of transition for the Utes had turned into the season of unbelievable horrors. And it didn't look as if things were going to get any easier, as Utah was facing their bitter rival on the road. What's more, BYU had won 5 consecutive conference games and already had guaranteed their first bowl berth since the 2001 season. It seemed both Utah and BYU were heading in opposite directions and the Cougars would finally show Utah what it felt like denying them a winning campaign -- something Utah had done to BYU in two of the three years prior.
Utah's success and or failure would be shouldered by junior college transfer Brett Ratliff, who had limited playing experience for the Utes during the 2005 season. Heading into the game, the Utes were a two score underdog and BYU players and fans were chomping at the bits at the possiblity of beating their rival for the first time since the 2001 season.
It was an untypically warm Saturday afternoon when the two teams met for their epic battle. A capacity crowd had filled LaVell Edwards Stadium in anticipation for the showdown and the excitment on BYU's side was palpable. Then Utah came roaring out of the gates...
Utah struck first, taking a 24-3 lead into the break. The improbable was looking possible, as the Utes offense, guided by Ratliff, exposed BYU's weak secondary. However in the third quarter BYU would mount a large comeback. Scoring 21 third quarter points, BYU was only down 7 to start the fourth. The lead would shrink to three, before BYU finally kicked the game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter.
Utah had one last chance to win the game in regulation, setting up for a 50 yard field goal. However the kick was too low, and BYU easily blocked it, sending the game into overtime. In overtime, it was all Utah. After an incomplete pass on first down, Ratliff found LaTendresse up the middle for a touchdown pass. Utah's defense then flustered BYU quarterback John Beck, and the Utes pulled out their fourth straight win over BYU, 41-34.
The Utes had accomplished the improbable, they defeated their bitter rival on the road with a quarterback starting his first ever game at the D 1-A level. Now with a record of 6-5, Utah was eligible for a bowl game and a once disastrous season could somewhat be salvaged with a strong bowl performance.
Utah was invited to play in the 2005 Emerald Bowl and they gladly accepted. Utah would have their toughest test of the season, playing a nationally ranked Georgia Tech team. While underdogs, the Utes had confidence, a confidence built on a solid victory over their hated rival. Georgia Tech would be a tough opponent, but Utah wasn't about to quiver at the sight of an ACC team that had defeated the likes of Auburn and Miami.
This game wasn't even close. Utah took a quick 20-0 lead and never looked back. If it weren't for two mistakes in the second quarter, Utah most likely would have won by an even wider margin; possibly even shutting out the Yellow Jackets all together. The punishment at the hands of Utah will go down as the worst bowl loss in Georgia Tech history. It also ties the 2005 Fiesta Bowl as the widest margin of victory for Utah in a bowl game (28 points). Not only that, but Tech's vaunted defense gave up a Utah bowl record 38 points.
Offensively, Brett Ratliff destroyed Georgia Tech's secondary, connecting with Utah WR Travis LaTendrasse for four touchdown passes. Ratliff also rolled up 381 yards on 30 of 41 passing. His lone blemish was an ill-advised interception that came in the middle of the 3rd quarter.
On the other side of the ball, Utah's defense kept Tech QB Reggie Ball mostly in check. Ball threw for one touchdown and had 258 yards, but also threw for 2 picks on 18 of 38 passing.
Travis LaTendrasse was named the offensive MVP for the Emerald Bowl and it's not a surprise why. LaTendrasse tied an NCAA bowl record for most touchdown catches in a game, and also set an Emerald Bowl record for most touchdown catches in a game.
Eric Weddle was named defensive MVP for the Emerald Bowl. Not only did Weddle take Calvin Johnson out of the game, Weddle also played a little bit of quarterback for the Utes. He ran the ball and also orchestrated a fake field goal while acting as the place holder. Quinton Ganther's 41-yard touchdown run was the icing on the cake for Utah's bowl outing. Ganther compiled 120 yards on 21 carries, against a Georgia Tech defense that had only given up, on average, 98 rushing yards per game.
And just like that, 2005 had ended on a high note. A season on the brink of disaster was now a successful one. Utah finished with its 5th straight bowl game, its 3rd straight winning season and momentum heading into the 2006 season. Now it'll be up to Utah to capitalize off that momentum and have an even more successful five year run -- though as history has shown, that won't be easy.