When Utah needed a 'hot hand,' Nate Johnson stepped up and delivered

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WACO, Texas — Nothing worked in the first half, and Utah had only 3 points to show for its efforts at the halftime break.

The offense sputtered along and couldn't find any sense of rhythm with a mix of Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson splitting reps under center. Barnes was too indecisive and struggled to connect with his receivers, and Baylor had no problem sniffing out designed run plays when Johnson entered the game.

So the Utah coaching staff turned to an in-game tryout of sorts to see who could generate a spark — or the "hot hand," according to Kyle Whittingham — for the team's offense.

Barnes got the first nod, a sign of his hard work to earn the starting role in Cam Rising's absence, but didn't fare much better in the second half, either. Even when Zemaiah Vaughn picked off Baylor quarterback Sawyer Robertson at the Bears' 37-yard line, Barnes couldn't capitalize on the moment and Utah settled for its second field goal of the day.

The former Milford High star got one more chance under center to open up the fourth quarter, but it ended with three incompletions and nothing to show for Utah's possession in a crucial point in the game trailing 13-6.

"Bryson was struggling," Whittingham said. "His last incomplete pass made him 6-for-19 for 70 yards, and we've just got to have more out of the throw game than that, so we decided to give Nate the chance in that last drive, and he responded extremely well."

Johnson took the opportunity and ran with it.

With Utah backed up to its 12-yard line to open its next possession with just over 10 minutes left to play in regulation, Johnson remained composed in the pocket and led his team down the field with a balanced run and pass game.

After a handful of rushing attempts by the team, Johnson settled in and connected on three straight passes — a 13-yard toss to Money Parks, followed by an 18-yard pass and 9-yard pass to Mikey Matthews — to get the Utes into the red zone and a chance to tie up the game with the clock ticking down.

Johnson capped off the drive with a 7-yard scamper up the middle for Utah's first touchdown of the day, and placekicker Cole Becker hit the ensuing PAT to tie up the game.

Utah got its much-needed spark in Johnson, and likely found a suitable replacement should Rising remain sidelined in his recovery from an ACL injury.

"We've got confidence in Nate, and it's just a situation where who gives you the best chance to win and what role can each of them play in the situation we're in right now," Whittingham explained. "But Nate took a big step forward, and he's going to be a better quarterback because of this performance. We're excited about his future here."

For Johnson, it was just doing what the team needed him to do to get the victory.

"Things weren't going well the whole game, and coach called my number," Johnson said. "I live by this quote, 'stay ready and gotta get ready,' and I just stepped in, trusted the game plan, trusted the calls, trusted our offense, and trusted God. He blessed us to come out with a win tonight."

The game wasn't pretty — and could accurately be described as a rock fight — but Utah survived with a 2-0 record and everything still on the table. The team expects to get Rising back in the lineup soon and has an FCS opponent in Week 3 to take some pressure off before a full conference slate in a loaded Pac-12 this season.

"We're gonna get Cam back at some point — hopefully this week, but I've been crossing my fingers for a couple of weeks now," Whittingham said. "But these two guys have held down the fort — nothing spectacular — but got the w's both weeks against two good Power Five teams. Not everybody in the country does it. Most teams play patsies the first couple weeks or even through first three weeks, but that's not our MO."

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer covering University of Utah athletics — primarily football, men’s and women's basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.


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