Kyle Whittingham calls it the lowest point of his career. Brian Johnson can remember the looks on the faces of his Utah teammates as they met hours after a humiliating 27-0 loss at UNLV last September. It was the first time the Utes has been shutout in 167 games.
"Guys were angry, guys were embarrassed, guys were upset," Johnson said. "It wasn't a pretty sight."
One week after beating No. 11 UCLA by 38 points, the Utes had fallen to 1-3 and 0-2 in the Mountain West Conference. Utah was at a crossroads. "It was quite a humbling experience for us," said Johnson, the Utes fifth-year senior quarterback. "We just came out and we met with each other and we decided what we needed to do to in order to make sure that never happens again."
Since that debacle in the desert, it hasn't. Utah has won 17 of its last 18 games, losing only to archrival BYU in the span. This season, the 10th-ranked Utes (8-0) have won at Michigan, beat Oregon State and are in contention for a second BCS berth in five seasons heading into Thursday's MWC clash with No. 11 TCU in Salt Lake City.
"After that [meeting], the guys have come ready to play every week," Whittingham said. "I think it's a credit to our players; they have a week-to-week mentality and they don't get ahead of themselves."
Unlike the previous three seasons, when Whittingham has had to lead Utah back from near-disaster, these Utes have overcome the missteps of the past. The resiliency learned in the wake of the UNLV loss last September has helped Utah to conjure up flashbacks of Urban Meyer, Alex Smith and the original BCS busters of '04. But Whittingham says that beyond the philosophical similarities, these Utes are a far different team than the undefeated team that walloped Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl.
"We still run the spread-option attack offensively and our defensive scheme has changed very little, so the look of our football team schematically has not changed a great deal," he said. "But this is more of a blue-collar team. We had some real high-profile guys on that '04 team and this team is more of a blue-collar approach."
The '04 Utes succeeded with a high-powered offense that racked up 499.7 yards and 45.3 points per game and a solid, but not great defense that yielded 343.4 yards a game. This season's team has flipped the script. The Utes are seventh nationally in total defense (266.2 ypg) and are 32nd in total offense (405.3 ypg) and 20th in scoring (36.1 ppg).
Despite the shift, the Utes are again back in the BCS race and at the forefront of the latest charge are Whittingham and Johnson, though they have each faced bumps along the way.
Whittingham served as Meyer's defensive coordinator for two years before being given his first head coaching job after Meyer left for Florida. Year 1 was rocky, as the Utes dropped three straight games at one point, but Whittingham led the Utes to four wins in their final five games, including a 38-10 victory over Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl, after which he said, "Everybody was ready to stick a fork in us. All the media, all the critics, like grandma always says, 'Piss on 'em.' "
Two years later, many buried Utah after the UNLV loss, but the Utes came back and won eight of their final nine.
Johnson says he has seen Whittingham come into his own through the transition of those first up-and-down seasons. "I think it took a couple of seasons to get acclimated to what we're doing and how he wants to run things and how to get the most out of his players," Johnson said. "He's doing an unbelievable job at this point and I think he's definitely one of the best coaches in the country."
Johnson's biggest obstacle in replacing Smith hasn't been criticism or expectations; it's simply been staying on the field. Smith's backup as a freshman, Johnson suffered a serious left knee injury late in the '05 season that forced him to take a medical redshirt the following year.
"It was almost like having another coach on the staff," Whittingham said. "He was in staff meetings, traveled with us the entire season and had headphones on the sidelines."
Johnson returned last season, only to injure his shoulder in the opener at Oregon State. He missed two more games before coming back in the second half of the loss to the Running Rebels, though the injury limited his effectiveness. "He couldn't throw the ball downfield like he wanted to," Whittingham said. "But he did a great job managing the offense." Johnson won eight of his 10 starts, but he finished with 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns less than the previous season.
Now healthy again, Johnson has thrown for 1,820 yards and 14 TDs and has the Utes in a position they haven't been in since Smith was under center. But Johnson isn't ready to turn his focus down the line to a BCS bid.
"I feel blessed to finally play a season healthy and we understand that there's a lot of work to be done and that we still have a long way to go," he said. "We'll take it at this point right now, but we have work ahead of us."
The Utes are eighth in the latest BCS standings, putting them well inside the mandatory top-12 finish needed to earn an at-large berth to a BCS bowl, but this team's toughest tests still lie ahead. Utah's final three games include the Horned Frogs and No. 17 BYU sandwiched around a trip to one-win San Diego State. Wins in those three games will clinch a BCS berth, but first the Utes must do what their chief rival couldn't and try to slow down TCU.
The Horned Frogs (9-1), whose only loss came to No. 6 Oklahoma, have been dominant since that defeat, outscoring their last five opponents 184-42, including a 32-7 romp of the Cougars. TCU's defense wreaked havoc on BYU quarterback Max Hall, sacking him seven times. The unit is ranked second nationally in total defense, first in rushing defense and sacks and third in scoring defense.
When you add in that the Frogs rank lower than 29th in the country in just three major categories (92nd in passing offense, 85th in net punting and 55th in passing efficiency), TCU becomes all the more daunting for its opposition.
"There really is not a weakness where you can point to and say, 'OK, that's where they're vulnerable,' " Whittingham said. "This is a football team that's strong from top to bottom."
It's unquestionably the Utes' biggest game of the season, but Whittingham believes his team can rely on the resolve that has come to define it under his watch and has been amplified since the UNLV loss.
"This is going to be a tough ball game and there's going to be things some things that we're going to have to overcome as is the case just about every week," Whittingham said. "We expect this week to be no different."