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Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News
Utah quarterback Brian Johnson celebrates a touchdown with "U" sign.

During last year's epic BYU-Utah game, a last-second 33-31 Cougar victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Max Hall and Brian Johnson could only watch.

While Johnson, who redshirted last season to recover from knee surgery, stood on the Ute sidelines and was heavily involved in trying to help his team win the game, Hall, who was redshirting due to NCAA transfer rules, sat in the stands like a regular fan.

"I had to scalp a ticket to get in, actually," Hall remembered.

On Saturday, when BYU and Utah renew their rivalry, Johnson and Hall, the starting quarterbacks for the two teams, will be making their respective debuts in the annual grudge match.

Johnson, a junior, has never been on the field against the Cougars, not even in 2004, when the Utes destroyed BYU 52-21 en route to an undefeated season and Fiesta Bowl bid. Late in the game, Utah coaches were about to put Johnson on the field, but an Alex Smith interception nixed those plans. The following year, Johnson suffered a torn ACL in a knee the week before the BYU game, which cost him not only a meeting with the Cougars but the entire 2006 campaign.

After waiting all of this time, Johnson is eager to play BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

"I'm extremely excited. It's my fourth year in the rivalry and my first time playing," he said. "So I'm really excited, ready to go and I can't wait to play."

Though he hasn't played against the Cougars, Johnson has learned a lot about the nature of the rivalry.

"Just knowing that it's going to be a battle until the very end," he said. "It's probably going to be won in the fourth quarter. That's when big-time players have to step up and make plays for their team. I think I know what to expect. I'm not going to let my emotions get the best of me or let this game overwhelm my by any means. But at the same time, you know what we're playing for and you know the implications that this game can possibly have. You just have to come out, remain calm and play consistent throughout the game."

Hall, meanwhile, learned lessons of his own a year ago in the stands at Rice-Eccles. A native of Mesa, Ariz., who signed with Arizona State out of high school, Hall admits he didn't know much about the rivalry until he attended last year's contest.

"Right then and there, you get to know about how intense it is," Hall said. "For us to come out with the win ... that play at the end was pretty exciting,"

The sophomore QB relishes rivalry games. "I've played in two state championship games against teams that were big rivals. I love it," Hall said. "It's those games you play college football for, the big games. We're looking forward to it. I'm learning more about the traditions and the rivalry of BYU and Utah. It doesn't get much better. We're confident and we're excited to play."

Both Hall and Johnson have been leaders and play-makers throughout the 2007 season and are a major part of the reason both teams are riding seven-game winning streaks.

In nine games, Johnson has completed 144 of 218 passes for 1,492 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. "He's been a stabilizing factor for our football team since he's been back (from a shoulder injury suffered in the season opener)," said coach Kyle Whittingham. "There's no question about that. His won-lost record (7-0 this season when he starts and finishes a game) speaks for itself. That's the ultimate barometer for a quarterback."

Hall suffered a slight shoulder separation last week against Wyoming, but he said he expects to be 100 percent by Saturday. Hall, who hadn't taken a snap in game in four years prior to this season, leads the Mountain West Conference in passing, having completed 241 of 395 attempts for 3,121 yards, 10 interceptions and 21 touchdowns.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall is pleased with the way Hall has performed. "He's becoming, through experience, more poised, more confident, more comfortable in the offense. We're also getting a much better feel for what he's capable of and what he's comfortable and confident with."


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Contributing: Dirk Facer