LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After the final seconds had finally ticked off the clock and the Utes shook hands with their opponents, Brian Johnson headed for the Ute section in the northeast corner of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

The Ute quarterback had just played brilliantly in the biggest game of his life, and he climbed into the stands to celebrate with his mother, Shonna, who had come up from Texas for the game.

Johnson was the last Ute to leave the field, and he high-fived a bunch of Ute fans and shouted "There we go — woo-hoo" as he headed for the locker room.

Any questions about whether he was back to full health or whether he could win a big game were answered in Friday's stunning 44-35 victory.

Johnson finished with 24-of-31 completions for 312 yards and a touchdown, and he also ran for 37 yards, including a key 25-yard touchdown scramble in the third quarter when the Cardinals were rallying.

"It was huge," Johnson said. "Big-time stage, Friday night on ESPN ... we wanted to come out and make a statement and show the nation what the Utes are all about."

The Utes did that by matching their 44-point total against UCLA and piling up 582 yards, by far their biggest offensive output of the season.

"Brian Johnson and the sharpness with which he played and the level he played was just outstanding," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. "He was off the charts tonight. That was a breakout game for the offense."

The Utes took it to the Cardinals right from the start, scoring on three consecutive drives after punting on their first drive.

After starting on their own 3-yard line and getting pushed back to the 1, the Utes drove the length of the field to score on a 7-yard pass from Johnson to Bradon Godfrey.

"We knew as an offense we wanted to start fast," said Johnson. "On the second drive we went 99 yards. That was huge confidence-wise and set the tone for us the rest of the game."

The Utes followed with two more drives capped by the first of Darrell Mack's three touchdown runs and a 16-yard run by Corbin Louks.

Not surprisingly, Louisville battled back and cut the lead to 27-21 late in the third quarter. However, the Utes coolly drove down the field for a touchdown and followed with another touchdown drive.

"It was huge to answer there," Johnson said. "We had to answer back and just keep doing what we were doing. We tried to take that drive and methodically move it down the field and stick it in the end zone."

The touchdown came when Johnson went back to pass, got flushed out of the pocket and ran down the left sideline for a 25-yard touchdown.

"That was a scramble," Johnson said. "It was a play-action pass and they did a nice job covering it, so I just pulled it down and luckily enough I was able to get to the end zone without getting caught."

Johnson came up with another big play after the Cards had cut the lead to 41-35 with 3:33 left. On a called play, Johnson faked a handoff up the middle and ran for a 10-yard gain to keep the clock and the chains moving.

Johnson, had sat out last year with a knee injury and two-and-half games with a shoulder injury, but he didn't want to take the credit for the victory.

"It was a great team effort," Johnson said. "We controlled a lot of things — we did a nice job running the ball and our defense hung in there and battled. It was a great win for the program."

E-mail: sor@desnews.com