If there is one excuse the Utes have about the up and down ride of their season, it's the fact Brian Johnson has not played the entire year. In fact, he's only played three full games -- all Utah victories. In every other game, he only played a half, or didn't play at all. The Utes went 1-3 when he's failed to play a full game and are 3-0 when he's played all four quarters. That has been something many have overlooked and I myself am guilty of this. Against TCU, Johnson will be making his fourth straight start and could be the difference maker between a loss and a victory.
The success of Utah will rest in whether Johnson can continue to progress as a quarterback. For the first time since his sophomore season in 2005, he's been allowed to progress. He couldn't after going down against Oregon State in the first half and he was thrown into a terrible situation against UNLV in the second. Obviously, Johnson was not ready for that game, so I do not fault him for that loss. In each subsequent week, he has looked far more impressive than he did in his second half outing against UNLV.
With that said, there are still some questions about Johnson's status. Is he 100% healthy and if he isn't, can we expect him to perform at a high level against a TCU defense that was constantly praised during the lead up to the 2007 season? And while TCU has struggled to live up to those defensive expectations, this will be the toughest defense Johnson has faced as a starter this season, outside maybe Oregon State. Utah State, Louisville and San Diego State all could field a team of fourth graders and they would probably defend better than they currently do. How's he going to pick apart a defense that only gives up 196 yards through the air per game? It's not going to be easy and Johnson will need all the help he gets, primarily from Darrell Mack.
If Johnson is going to lead this offense, Mack is going to have to take pressure off the passing game by bulldozing his way through the Frogs' defensive line. Luckily, TCU gives up, on average, 139 yards on the ground per game. While not horrible, especially compared to Utah's last opponent, San Diego State (191 YPG), it isn't great. In fact, it's dramatically off from their 2006 average, when they only held teams to 67 YPG on the ground. In their game against Stanford, TCU gave up 170 total rushing yards and I believe Utah has a far better passing game than the Cardinal.
Johnson is the best quarterback in the Mountain West and Mack is one of the best running backs. I fully expect the coaching staff to exploit that and use it to their advantage. TCU's defense is vulnerable, even though they were highly touted earlier in the season. This doesn't mean I expect the Utes to roll into Fort Worth and kill the Frogs. But I do expect an offensive performance that doesn't nearly stink as bad as it did a few weeks ago in Vegas. Luckily for Utah, TCU has far more question marks on their offense than the Utes do. If Brian Johnson can continue his topnotch play and Mack continues to roll on the ground, Utah will be just fine. If -- and it's distinctly possible -- the Frogs defense finally lives up to its hype and Johnson struggles, while Mack can't find any movement, it's possible they're closer to their performance against UNLV than they are Louisville.