Utah has done its best to put last season's 27-0 loss to UNLV in the rear-view mirror. Since that "bleak weekend" in Vegas, Kyle Whittingham's Utes have won nine of 10 games. The lone blemish was the painful "fourth-and-18" loss at BYU.
Other than that, everything has gone well on the field. Last week's 25-23 victory at Michigan led to a No. 22 national ranking, something Utah carries into tonight's home- and conference-opener against UNLV.
"You're always striving to get better and do more," Whittingham said. "But I like where we are one game into the season."
The win over the Wolverines is the latest chapter in Utah's turnaround story. After winning their first two games under Whittingham in
2005, the Utes prevailed in just 14 of the 27 contests that followed. The mediocre stretch was capped by the setback at UNLV.
For whatever reason, success followed.
"I can't give you a definitive answer there," Whittingham said. "I just know that we kept working, we kept believing, we kept trusting in each other and it started to come together."
There were several factors that led to the uprising. Whittingham said getting quarterback Brian Johnson back was huge. Johnson started the final nine games last season and earned offensive MVP honors in the Poinsettia Bowl.
"Getting him back coincided with that streak and so that was a major factor," said Whittingham, who also pointed to other variables such as Darrell Mack's emergence as a dominant ball-carrier, how the offensive line paved the way and the consistent effectiveness of the defense.
Whittingham said he hates to use the word "rebuilding," but acknowledged there was a lot of firepower to replace after the undefeated season of 2004.
"It's been a process. I think we've increased our team speed each and every year over the past four seasons. I think our depth has gotten better, and of course that was all tied to recruiting," Whittingham said. "I think our assistants have done a great job recruiting over the last four years, and it's starting to show up."
The players in the program, he continued, have a solid work ethic that is paying off. They come out ready to go each day, study film and live their lives the right way.
"We're not perfect. Never professed to be," Whittingham said. "But we've got a bunch of good kids on our football team."
And they're united in a specific cause a league title.
"The Mountain West Conference championship has eluded us," Whittingham said. "There are still several things out there that we're trying to attain."
One of those leading the charge is Johnson, a rare two-time captain. The quarterback has overcome injuries to regain the form he showed earlier in his career.
In the first half of last week's game at Michigan, Johnson completed 15-of-23 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown. The offense had 313 yards at the break.
"He was very sharp and executed the offense extremely well. We put up over 300 yards of offense on a very good defense in one half of football." Whittingham said. "He was very productive in the first half and was just his old self."
And though things didn't go as smoothly in the second half, Utah held on to get the win. And that's what matters most to Johnson.
"The best thing about being 1-0 is you've got the chance to go 2-0," Johnson said. "It's a great, great way to start off a season."
UNLV coach Mike Sanford has studied the Michigan tape and is well aware of Johnson's abilities. He was Johnson's first offensive coordinator at Utah.
"I think he's kind of had some times in his career where he's had really good runs of playing well," said Sanford, who added that Johnson was tremendous against Michigan. "First of all, I think the world of Brian. I think he's an excellent quarterback. I think he's a smart guy. I take my hat off to him.
"He played a great game against a great opponent in a big-time venue," Sanford continued. "I think that's a tremendous accomplishment."
Even so, Johnson still has room for improvement.
"He was very good, but it's a game of two halves. I'm very pleased with the way he played and the position he put the football team in through the first half," Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said.
"But we have to play complete games. He knows that. We learned a lot from watching that game tape. You learn a lot."
On a roll
How Utah has fared since quarterback Brian Johnson came back from injury and regained his job as the starter.
Date Opponent Outcome
9/29/07 Utah State Won, 34-18
10/5/07 at Louisville Won, 44-35
10/13/07 San Diego State Won, 23-7
10/18/07 at TCU Won, 27-20
10/27/07 at Colorado State Won, 27-3
11/10/07 Wyoming Won, 50-0
11/17/07 New Mexico Won, 28-10
11/24/07 at BYU Lost, 17-10
12/20/07 Navy (Poinsettia Bowl) Won, 35-32
UNLV (1-0) at
No. 22 Utah (1-0)
Saturday, 6 p.m.
TV: The mtn.