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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Brian Johnson runs for a first down.

SAN DIEGO — Things didn't exactly start well for Brian Johnson in Thursday night's Poinsettia Bowl.

His first pass of the night went straight into the arms of Navy's Ross Pospisil. He only completed four passes in the first half for 27 yards and ran for 24 more.

The second half was a different story for Johnson, however, as the Utah offense came alive for 28 points, sparking the Utes to a 35-32 victory at Qualcomm Stadium.

Johnson finished with 20 completions in 25 attempts for 226 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 69 yards and another touchdown in his best overall game of the season.

For Johnson it was his best rushing game of the season and his second-best passing game, behind only his 312-yard effort against Louisville.

Afterward, Johnson was named the offensive player of the game.

"I got into a rhythm offensively and was really feeling it," he said. "The receivers did a great job and kept making plays. The offensive line was great, and I can't say enough about their pass protection all night long. They were awesome at protection all night, and I don't know if they gave up a sack all night."

After completing just two of his first five passes, Johnson heated up and, near the end of the second quarter and throughout the third quarter, he completed 11 straight passes before missing early in the fourth period. Then he completed six of his last seven passes to finish the game.

Coach Kyle Whittingham said his strategy was to run the ball a lot and try to keep Navy off the field as much as possible. Utah's defense held the Midshipmen down in the opening half, but the Ute offense looked anemic. Afterwards Whittingham, said it was "on him" why the offense didn't do much in the first half.

"We knew we had to come out the second half and do our thing, and that's what we did," Johnson said. "Yeah, we opened (the playbook) up. You have to leave everything out on the field. We knew we only had 30 minutes left of football, and we wanted to make sure it was the best 30 minutes we could have."

Trailing 17-7, the Utes began their seven-play touchdown drive with three straight Johnson passes — to Brian Hernandez for 13 yards, to Elijah Wesson for 10 and to Jereme Brooks for five. Then after three runs, including a key fourth-down pickup by Mack, Brooks got loose on a 23-yard touchdown run on a reverse around the right end.

On Utah's next possession, Johnson threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Derrek Richards to put the Utes ahead 21-17. Then on Utah's next possession, Johnson scrambled for 19 yards around right end for a touchdown. He had another key scramble on a third-down play for a first down on the Utes' final touchdown drive.

"The old Brian Johnson was back running the ball," he said. "I was just trying to make plays and help my team win."

Johnson injured his throwing shoulder in the first game of the season and sat out for three weeks, and he never was 100 percent the rest of the season. He said his shoulder was fine Thursday and he's looking forward to a healthy senior season.

"It felt great," he said. "The time off really helped, but I'm really looking forward to some good rest and get this thing healed up."

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