Utah keeps its cool under familiar conditions

August, 30, 2008
8/30/08
8:40
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As one of few remaining members from the greatest non-BCS team in the BCS era, Utah quarterback Brian Johnson has tasted success at the highest level.

In 2004 he appeared in 10 games as Alex Smith's backup and helped Utah to a perfect season and a Fiesta Bowl win. After a knee injury put his career on pause, he went 8-2 as the Utes' starter last season, including a win against Louisville. Beating big-time teams in big-time settings isn't foreign to Johnson, but he didn't downplay what it meant to beat Michigan 25-23 on Saturday.

"I think so," Johnson said when asked if it was the biggest win in his career. "It's right up there with that Louisville win, and I'm sure I'll remember this win for the rest of my life."

After a nearly-flawless first half in which he dissected Michigan's secondary, Johnson struggled down the stretch, throwing an interception and fumbling with 7:40 remaining. But panic never set in.

"Being a fifth-year senior, I've seen a lot of football," Johnson said as 'Hail to the Victors' played in the background. "The key is to stay calm in those situations. You don't want to get too anxious and go out there and mess up. We just had to stick together."

Aside from Johnson, no Utes player faced more pressure Saturday than All-American kicker/punter Louie Sakoda. The senior went 4-for-4 on field goals, including a 53-yarder, and averaged 47 yards on six punts.

Like Johnson, Sakoda faced his share of adversity. He had an extra-point attempt blocked and a punt blocked in the fourth quarter that set up a Michigan touchdown. But Sakoda never flinched, launching a 50-yard punt to pin Michigan at its 11-yard line with 2:35 left. You could make a strong case Sakoda was the player of the game.

"I actually felt more comfortable kicking here than I have in a lot of stadiums," Sakoda said. "A lot of it was just my offseason work and preparation. It didn't seem to have too much of an effect."

After celebrating with a group of fans in the southwest corner of the stadium, defensive tackle Lei Talamaivao shouted, "We're taking the big house with us!" as he walked to the tunnel. Not many non-BCS teams can make that claim, but this is nothing new for Utah.

"This has been one of the biggest ones for sure," coach Kyle Whittingham said, "but you'll have to look back in the last 15 years to see where it ranks. It was a great way to start the season."

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