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November 16, 2005

What now?

Brian Johnson out

With the biggest game of the season coming up in a few days, the University of Utah is going to be missing two key offensive starters, quarterback Brian Johnson and receiver John Madsen. The game is not only against hated rival Brigham Young University, but a winning season and bowl eligibility are on the line as well.

Brian Johnson's season is over. MRI results Monday showed a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Johnson's left knee. Johnson injured the knee late in the 4th quarter of Utah's 31-27 loss to the University of New Mexico while attempting to scramble for a 1st down on 4th and 15. A personal foul during the play gave Utah a first down, and a chance to take the lead, but backup Brett Ratliff threw an interception to end any hopes of a comeback. Depending on the severity of the injury, Johnson's recovery could be anywhere from six months to one year.

The Utes lost John Madsen half way through the first quarter of the same game with a broken left leg, sustained while he was blocking downfield on a running play. The loss of Madsen especially hurt the team in the second half, as they struggled to consistently move the ball against an aggressive, blitzing defense. Madsen's size would have been helpful in throwing short slant patterns against the smaller defensive backs. Madsen was leading the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

What does Brett Ratliff bring to the table?

For starters, he's tall, a legitimate 6-foot-4, which allows him to see over the pocket a little easier than the 6-foot-1 Johnson. He has a strong arm, and is a pure pocket passer. He is not a big threat running the ball, but can get yardage when he needs it. His last year at Butte College, he scored 9 rushing touchdowns off of 95 net rushing yards.

It is hard to tell from statistics on how good of a passer Ratliff is, as he played in a more run oriented offense at Butte. In two years, Ratliff only attempted 350 passes in 18 games. In comparison, in Brian Johnson has attempted 330 passes in 10 games this season. He never threw for 1,500 yards in a season, ending up with 2,541 in his two years. He did throw for 32 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. Ratliff only completed 52% of his passes, but again that was in a more run oriented, take shots downfield offense. He has shown decent accuracy through fall camp and his reps in practice throughout the season, and throws a good deep ball.

While not the runner and maybe not the passer that Brian Johnson is, Ratliff should be an adequate starter, especially against a secondary that has had problems defending the pass. The Cougars are 104th in the nation in pass defense, giving up 276 yards per game. They are also 102nd in pass efficiency defense, with an opposing quarterback rating of 142.44. The numbers don't get any better from there. They have allowed opposing quarterback's to complete 64% of their passes, with 19 touchdown passes to only 9 interceptions.

As an adequate passer in an offense that has thrown the ball 45% of the time, Ratliff should fill in nicely in Utah's passing attack. He will need to make quick decisions and get rid of the ball instead of taking a sack. He will need to make good decisions against a confusing 3-3-5 scheme and not turn the ball over for Utah to stay in the game. We could see the offense attack BYU's secondary deep more with Ratliff than with Johnson. Still, expect to see Utah attack BYU's corners in a similar manner that Notre Dame did, with quick, short passes to players like Travis LaTendresse, Brent Casteel, Marquis Wilson, and perhaps Freddie Brown who can make plays with their quickness or size advantage. The design of the passing offense should not change at all, as Ratliff is comfortable with the offense and competent executing it.

We could see a change in Utah's running game. Ratliff is not an option quarterback. While Utah will not abandon the option, we could see a much lower dose, instead running draws or possibly direct snaps out of the shotgun formation. When Ratliff operates under center, we could see more dives, traps and off-tackle plays, and perhaps see more of Wilson and Casteel running sweeps off of wide receiver motion across the formation. We could also see current receiverFano Tagovailoa line up at quarterback (he was the 3rd quarterback last season) and run some more of the option offense.

Overall, we should not see Utah's offensive scheme change much. Ratliff and the rest of the offense need to play smart, not turn the ball over, and play within themselves instead of trying to do too much. If they do this, Utah has a good chance of moving the ball and putting up points. If the defense continues to play well, Utah will have a good chance at winning this game, even without two key offensive starters.


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