SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Before Nate Johnson ran on the field to make his first start with Cameron Rising still sidelined, the Utah quarterback got his final instructions from Kyle Whittingham.
“Relax,” the coach told him. “You have prepared well and there’s no reason you shouldn’t perform today.”
Johnson threw for 193 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score, helping the No. 12 Utes to a 31-7 victory over FCS member Weber State in the third game without an injured Rising on Saturday.
Though he is practicing without limits, Rising still hasn’t suited up for the Utes (3-0) since tearing an ACL in the Rose Bowl last season.
A redshirt freshman, Johnson was a fourth-stringer in the spring and has battled injuries of his own, but is known for his confidence and said he didn’t have many jitters.
Besides, he was just a week removed from replacing Bryson Barnes and leading the final two drives as the Utes scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally for a 20-13 victory at Baylor.
“I felt good since I found out on Monday,” Johnson said of starting.
And really, there wasn’t too much to worry about since the Utes can lean on their defense.
Lander Barton capped the scoring with a 23-yard interception return in the third quarter as Utah’s defense, which has carried the team during Rising’s absence, held Weber State to 127 total yards.
Barton’s pick-six gave Utah at least one in 20 consecutive seasons.
“Credit to our defense,” Johnson said. “Our defense has been really, really good these past three weeks.”
Johnson had 71 yards on 16 carries while finding speedy receivers in stride downfield in the passing game.
“Since spring ball, I had set myself back with a hamstring injury but one of my main focuses has been accuracy,” said Johnson, who was 13 of 21 passing. “I have been building connections with the receivers. Felt good today, especially getting every receiver involved.”
Weber State’s Damon Bankston, who came in as the leading rusher in FCS game at 132 yards per game, was held to 59 yards on eight carries. The running back had 47 of those on a second-quarter carry that set up the only score for the Wildcats (2-1).
“They load the box and they play man,” Weber State coach Mickey Mental said. “That’s who they are, so it makes it difficult when you have a plus-number in the box to keep pounding it out.”
Munir McClain had a career-high 92 yards receiving for Utah, and Money Parks had a 13-yard scoring catch. Ja’Quinden Jackson rushed for 69 yards on nine carries, and Jaylon Glover had a 2-yard TD run.
Johnson picked up where he left off from the Baylor game, leading a 10-play, 69-yard drive the start the game, capping the march with a 1-yard sneak.
“It wasn’t what I’d call a dominant performance or our best football but we did a lot of good things on offense, a lot of production,” Whittingham said.
While waiting for Rising to return, Utah faces a mounting injury list with more than 15 regular contributors hobbled.
“We got to start getting players back,” Whittingham said. “We lost some more today. I have been coaching 40 years and I’ve never, never seen anything like this in that department.”
The Utes aren’t like to move much after playing an FCS opponent. They’re more likely to drop a spot or two than gain any ground.
Weber State: The Wildcats are a top 10 FCS team but were outmatched at the line of scrimmage. They nearly broke a couple of kick returns and racked up 137 return yards but never got the big break they needed to make it a competitive game.
Utah: The Utes were steady throughout but left some points on the board with a botched snap on a field goal attempt and a failed fourth-down conversion early. Utah’s balanced attack produced 231 yards rushing and 193 while making life a little easier for the defense by keeping the ball for 40 minutes.
Weber State: Montana State at home next Saturday.
Utah: No. 24 UCLA visits in the Pac-12 opener for both teams next Saturday.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll
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