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Wild Out West
KELLEY KING
November 01, 2004
Running mad in Urban Meyer's radical spread-option attack, Utah is stalking an unbeaten season--and putting another scare into the powers behind the BCS
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November 01, 2004

Wild Out West

Running mad in Urban Meyer's radical spread-option attack, Utah is stalking an unbeaten season--and putting another scare into the powers behind the BCS

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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."

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