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?"