Rebels put focus on Utes QB

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State’s quarterbacks didn’t overwhelm UNLV with talent last weekend, but they might have exposed some weaknesses in the Rebels’ defense.

And if the Rebels thought defending Sean Setzer and Diondre Borel was at times difficult, just wait until Utah’s Brian Johnson takes the field.

If the season opener was a quiz on defending quarterbacks, today’s 5 p.m. PDT game looks more like a final exam. Probably only Arizona State’s Rudy Carpenter and Brigham Young’s Max Hall will give the Rebels as much to think about.

“I think the world of Brian,” said UNLV coach Mike Sanford, who was Johnson’s offensive coordinator in 2004 at Utah. “I think he’s an excellent quarterback.”

This is the Mountain West Conference opener for both teams, each 1-0. Utah is ranked No. 22 after winning 25-23 at Michigan.

A capacity crowd is expected at Rice-Eccles Stadium to watch the Utes try to gain revenge after UNLV’s 27-0 victory last season in Las Vegas.

Johnson did not start that game because of a shoulder injury sustained three weeks earlier. He came off the bench to open the second half, but wasn’t completely ready and passed for just 78 yards.

As his health improved during the season, so did his play. Johnson completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 1,847 yards, leading the Utes to eight victories in their final nine games.

The Johnson the Rebels saw that September night isn’t the same one they’ll face tonight.

Johnson made that obvious at Michigan, throwing for 305 yards and a touchdown on 21-for-33 passing. He carried an offense that gained just 36 yards rushing.

UNLV allowed Setzer to complete 9 of 10 passes for 114 yards in the first quarter, though he was ineffective in the second period. Borel relieved Setzer early in the second half and passed for 80 yards and rushed for 70.

“We went into the game saying we needed to stop the run in between the tackles,” Sanford said. “The quarterback (Borel) made a difference and did a great job getting yards. Now how that applies over to Brian Johnson, I think probably applies as far as pure running more to (backup quarterback) Corbin Louks.”

But Louks, who is used similarly to how Florida spelled Chris Leak with Tim Tebow two years ago, might not play because of a shoulder injury.

Rebels defensive coordinator Dennis Therrell said he didn’t expect Utah to design running plays for Johnson if Louks can’t go.

Johnson can hurt UNLV with his legs, but is mostly a drop-back quarterback. He usually runs to escape a sack while still looking for a receiver.

While comparing Johnson to Utah State’s quarterbacks might not be an exact fit, Johnson said he saw on videotape of last week’s game possible vulnerabilities on UNLV’s defense.

“I think they’re a very solid defense,” he said. “I think if we execute our plan, we have an opportunity to play well. We can’t talk about specifically what we see on film. I like our chances, and if we play well, we have a chance to win the game.”

The Rebels, though, might get two key defenders back. Cornerback Quinton Pointer and tackle Jacob Hales, who each missed the opener with dislocated elbows, would provide a great boost.

The Rebels need all the reinforcements they can find to defend against Johnson.

“Brian can do it all,” Therrell said. “He can run with it and buy himself time and makes great decisions and throws that football downfield.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914.

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