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Dean Hendrickson
Montana State quarterback DeNarius McGhee scampers for yardage.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's first season in the "Conference of Quarterbacks" is getting off to an early start.

Nine days before opening Pac-12 play against USC's Matt Barkley, the Utes take on another talented quarterback. Montana State's DeNarius McGhee is on several preseason All-America lists and may be the best signal-caller in the Football Championship Subdivision.

The 6-foot, 213-pound sophomore made quite a splash in his first season with the Bobcats. McGhee led them to a share of the Big Sky Conference championship by throwing for 3,163 yards and 23 touchdowns. He also rushed for a pair of scores en route to being named conference Offensive Co-Player of the Year.

"It's very apparent when you turn the film on that Montana State is a well coached and disciplined team with a lot of guys that can make plays and it starts with the quarterback," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "He's a tremendous athlete."

McGhee, who has thrown at least one touchdown pass in all 12 games he has played at Montana State, is particularly good at turning a bad situation into a positive — making the most of broken plays.

"One of his main strengths, I would say, is running the ball when he's in a tough situation," said Utah defensive tackle Dave Kruger, who noted that McGhee also passes the ball well.

The combination, thereof, has Utah's attention.

"Full attention," according to Whittingham.

And with good reason. McGhee may actually be better than he was in leading Montana State to a 9-3 record and postseason play last year.

"Individually, Denarius is twice as good as he was last year," senior wide receiver Elvis Akpla told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. "He is twice as accurate, twice as confident."

That's saying something considering that McGhee quarterbacked Montana State to a 30-7 win over eventual national champion Eastern Washington last season. He also took the snaps in a 23-22 loss at Washington State. The Bobcats held a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of the near-upset in Pullman.

"Their coaching jumps out at you. There are telltale signs, like how hard guys go, schematics and detail things," Whittingham said. "It's apparent that Montana State pays attention to every aspect of the game."

While McGhee and the offense draw a lot of headlines, Whittingham said they fly around defensively as well.

"They have all of our attention and all of our respect," he added.

Utah is 9-0 all-time against Montana State, winning the games by a combined score of 455-25. The last meeting was in 1982.

Utes' season-opener

Montana State at Utah

Thursday, 6 p.m.


Radio: 700 AM

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Twitter: @DirkFacer