No one's paying too much attention to Utah football. Or so it seems on a raw October evening in Salt Lake City, as storm clouds obscure the surrounding Wasatch mountains and send pedestrians scurrying past Rice-Eccles Stadium without a glance. Inside, however, players are in their second hour of a midweek practice, and neither the rain nor their coach shows any signs of letting up. ¬∂ Suddenly a whistle shrieks. Helmets swivel toward its source. Urban Meyer's unblinking brown eyes survey his shivering charges, then turn to the downpour illuminated by the shafts of stadium light. The coach had been thinking of sending his players to the showers, but they never end Wednesday drills without going over their hurry-up offense one final time, even in the pouring rain.
"Two minutes!" Meyer, 40, hollers. Without hesitation, Utes fan out across the turf. Cold and wet as they are, they're relieved. They know that this is the kind of preparation you need when you have no room for error, when you are competing against a group of better-funded, more established teams in a system that requires you to perform near miracles to make it to the top. As an outsider to the six-conference fiefdom that runs the Bowl Championship Series, Mountain West member Utah must beat every opponent convincingly to finish with the Top 12 ranking required to make an invitation to the Orange, Rose, Sugar or Fiesta Bowl a mere possibility. And so the Utes practice late in conditions that would give the FedEx man pause. They gather at 7 a.m. to study film. And finally, come game day, they run a magic hat of an offense, from which they might pull a Purdue-style spread attack, an Air Force--inspired triple-option set or a Spurrieresque vertical game.
With this blue-collar outlook and fusion offense, Utah is unbeaten in seven games, outscoring three BCS-conference teams by an average of three touchdowns. The Utes kicked off the season with a 41-21 victory over Big 12 middleweight Texas A&M, which has gone on to win six straight. Over the next two months the Utes also felled Arizona of the Pac 10, 23-6, and the ACC's North Carolina, 46-16, and made mincemeat out of the Mountain West, most recently pounding UNLV 63-28 in a Saturday-night downpour for which the Utes had painstakingly prepared. Entering their game at San Diego State this weekend, Utah was ninth in the AP poll and sixth in the BCS standings.
It's all quite new to Utah. Before 2003 the Utes' last outright conference championship was 1957. "We seemed stuck in the second tier," says Eric Jacobsen, a Utes defensive back in the mid-'80s. "That was, until Urban came along."
That's Urban Meyer, the Ohio-born architect of Utah's revival. At Notre Dame in the late '90s Meyer earned a reputation as a fiery and forward-thinking receivers coach. He would dream, day and night, about the spread attack he hoped to one day install. "For a while," says his wife, Shelley, "I would wake up to Urban screaming 'Cover 5! Cover 5!' in his sleep." Despite 15 years of apprenticeship in I-formation offenses at Ohio State, Illinois State, Colorado State and finally Notre Dame, Meyer had his own theories about what would terrify defenses.
"He was constantly coming up with ideas of how to spread out the ball, just for fun," says offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, who coached quarterbacks at Notre Dame while Meyer was there. "We'd put together entire game plans that just wouldn't fly in the offense that Notre Dame was running."
On his own time Meyer also studied Randy Walker's empty-backfield sets at Northwestern, and how Louisville offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, now with the Minnesota Vikings, taught his quarterbacks to handle the safety blitz. When he was hired as head coach of Bowling Green in 2001, Meyer started running a hybrid attack--part spread, part option--that had existed only in pencil scratchings to that point. In his first season Bowling Green was the most improved team in the country, going from 2-9 to 8-3. The next year, when quarterback Josh Harris had a better grasp of Meyer's mix of short passes and option keepers, Harris was third in the nation in total offense for the 9-3 Falcons.
Then Utah called. Shelley, who had visions of their two daughters and son schussing down sun-drenched ski slopes, urged him to consider the job. Urban, who envisioned strong-armed West Coast prospects running his offense, agreed that it could be a smart career move. "I couldn't see why Utah wasn't winning," he says.
Upon arriving in Salt Lake City, he found a few reasons, starting with football facilities that made the DMV look sumptuous. "My predecessors were purposely keeping recruits away from the athletic department," says Meyer, who outfitted one colorless office with memorabilia and couches upon which prospects could relax during visits.
He also found players with marshmallow physiques and lukewarm spirit. For the dynamic offense and hyperaggressive defense Meyer intended to install, this simply would not do. "Weightlifting was more like social hour my first year at Utah," says junior quarterback Alex Smith. "We started hearing about mat drills when Coach Meyer first arrived, and we were like, What's that?"
They found out. In the very first winter workout in 2003, coaches locked the gymnasium doors and set out trash cans for Utes who had made the mistake of eating breakfast. Players ran sprints "for what seemed like forever," says senior tailback Marty Johnson, then collapsed on benches. "We stared at each other for about 45 minutes," says Johnson. "We couldn't believe what life was going to be like."
For some, the Bowling Green tapes Meyer brought with him were even more distressing. "He was very intense," says Smith, "and you just knew that he was looking for that 230-pound guy to run that offense." At 195 Smith was not that guy.
But Meyer saw Smith's strengths: an accurate throwing arm and a sharp mind. At Helix High, in La Mesa, Calif., he got only a fraction of the recruiting attention lavished on teammate Reggie Bush, now a star tailback at USC. But Smith entered Utah with enough advanced-placement credits to earn an economics degree as a sophomore. Studying was something he could do, and he began a 20-hour-a-week film routine to learn Meyer's hybrid offense.
By the start of the 2003 season, says Meyer, "it became clear that if Alex knows where defensive players are on the field, he can hurt them." In his first start Smith led the Utes to a 31--24 upset of Cal, and he went on to complete 65% of his throws for 2,247 yards and 15 touchdowns. It was a breakout year for Smith and for Utah, whose 10 wins also included a 17-13 victory over 19th-ranked Oregon and a 17-0 Liberty Bowl triumph over Southern Miss.
this year Smith has bulked up, to 212 pounds, and so has Utah's playbook. Whereas last season the Utes relied mostly on a short-to-midrange passing game, now they run more option plays--here's the fun part--out of the shotgun. Should a defense dare to blitz, Smith can pitch the ball, take it up the middle or launch it long. "It looks wide open, but then all of a sudden they put someone in motion, and it can turn into a kind of inverted-wishbone set," says Texas A&M defensive coordinator Carl Torbush. "On top of that the QB does a great job of checking off, and if he gets you where he wants you, he runs the ball inside. It's what modern football is all about, and Utah is just a little ahead of everyone else."
Ahead, the Utes have found, is an awfully nice place to be. "I would love to play one of the Florida or Michigan schools because there's a lot of bad football played out there," says Smith. These days BCS teams that neglected to recruit Smith and other Utes aren't doing much trash-talking during games. "When you're down by 21," says Johnson, "there's not much you can say."
When you do say something--such as the pronouncement by ESPN's Trev Alberts that Utah's "weak" schedule made it unworthy of a BCS bowl bid--the Utes won't forget it. "I just can't stand people who have never been here, never talked to our players, showing such disrespect," says Meyer. "They have no idea what's going on around here."
The pride has spread to a campus whose commuter-school reputation has been borne out in paltry attendance for decades. These days University Street is festooned with banners bearing slogans such as UTAH FOOTBALL: BUCKLE YOUR SEATBELTS. Meyer does his part to pump up the program. After games he sings the school fight song, Utah Man ("We're up to snuff, we never bluff, we're game for any fuss/No other gang of college men dare meet us in the muss!"), with the growing cheering section, dubbed the MUSS--Mighty Utah Student Section--whose logo he's had placed on Utes helmets.
At a booster luncheon last week, extra tables had to be set up to accommodate more than 350 attendees. The avalanche of support has helped pay for the $50 million stadium and a $7 million indoor practice facility that's under construction. Not that the Utes expect to shelve their long johns anytime soon. "Indoor's not my thing," Meyer says, "but recruits seem to like it."
Boosters can only hope those recruits will play under Meyer, whose six-year contract (at $500,000 per year) allows him to leave for Ohio State, Michigan or Notre Dame without paying a penalty. "We all know he's given everything to Utah since he's come here," says Jacobsen, the former Ute who has become close friends with Meyer. "If something big came along, I guess he'd have to take it." Meyer says that "given the way things are going," that something "would have to be really, really big."
Big is what Utah football has become. Although soggy conditions kept many fans home last Saturday night, the 40,341 who made it to Rice-Eccles were treated to another mind-boggling show. The 63 points were the most by the Utes in a decade. Smith threw three touchdown passes and ran for another, faking a pitch to Johnson and scampering 70 yards. To celebrate the win, one foul-weather fan held up a sign, hey fiesta bowl, utes love warm weather! Turns out Utah's fireworks function even in a rainstorm--just one more reason why the BCS should start paying attention.
"We seemed stuck in the second tier," says a former Utes safety,"until Urban came along."
Photograph by John W. McDonough
GIVING 'EM THE RUNAROUND
¬† On third and five from the UNLV 29-yard-line early in the second quarter, Utah pulled off one of its typically atypical plays. The sequence:
1. From a four-receiver shotgun set, quarterback Alex Smith takes the snap and fakes a handoff to running back Quinton Ganther as Travis LaTendresse comes in motion out of the left slot.
2. Accompanied by LaTendresse, Smith rolls right while the right outside receiver, Steve Savoy, begins to cut back left.
3. Slipping between Smith and LaTendresse, Savoy takes the pitch, while left tackle Tavo Tupola releases from the wall of blockers.
4. Having eluded the Rebels' defensive end, Savoy breaks into the open field, escorted by Tupola and center Jesse Boone.
5. Aided by a downfield block from left outside receiver John Madsen, Savoy outruns the UNLV defense to the end zone to put the Utes ahead 35-7.
Photograph by John W. McDonough
Smith makes the most of his options--he's fifth in the nation in passing efficiency and has eight rushing touchdowns.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
Photographs by John W. McDonough
Among other endearing acts, Meyer put the logo of the Mighty Utah Student Section on his players' helmets.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK
¬†UNLV's Domonique Dorsey can confirm that the Utes aren't all offense--they can D up when they have to.