Washington Huskies (3-1; 1-0) @ Utah Utes (2-1; 0-1)
Saturday, 4 p.m., Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah
TV: ROOT; Radio: 950 KJR; Internet: SEE BELOW
Line: Utah -7
The Utah Utes await the Washington Huskies in what will be their first ever Pac-12 home opener. Coming off a dominant performance against rival Brigham Young, Utah’s strong defense and improving offense looks to even their conference record against the Huskies.
The Utes’ spread offense is gone, replaced by former Southern California coordinator Norm Chow’s pro-style scheme. Chow is a former Utes guard now widely regarded as one of the best college coordinators in history. In his 39 years at Brigham Young, North Carolina State, Southern California, UCLA and the Tennessee Titans, he’s coached Steve Young, Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel, Philip Rivers, John David Booty, Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer, Robbie Bosco and a young man named Steve Sarkisian.
The Utes lost a heartbreaker to USC three weeks ago in their first ever Pac-12 game. Down 17-14 late in the fourth quarter, Utah used two big plays and a pass interference penalty to set up a game-tying 41-yard field goal but USC’s all-everything, do-everything left tackle Matt Kalil blocked it with just 11 ticks left. Utah hopes to even their slate this week against Washington.
Scouting the Utes:
- Head coach Kyle Whittingham has had some great squads over his six-plus years in Salt Lake City, almost always hanging his hat on the defense. Same story this year: the Utes lead the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense, ranking second in scoring defense and third in rushing defense. Here are BYU’s net rushing yards two weeks ago against Utah, broken down by quarter: minus-6 in the first, 24 in the second, minus-5 in the third and minus-2 in the fourth. Wow.
- A lot of that dominance starts with the linebacking corps. Former Sporting News Freshman All-America safety Brian Blechen (pronounced “Bleckin”) starts at “Stud” linebacker as a sophomore and already has two interceptions. Senior middle linebacker Chaz Walker—a former walk-on safety—was second-team all-Mountain West last year, finishing with 113 stops. Also, don’t try any Larry-Johnson-on-Troy-Polamalus with his flowing black hair: he’s a black belt in karate. Senior “Rover” Matt Martinez—another former walk-on—was honorable mention All-Mountain West last year.
- Week 3’s Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week doesn’t even start. Backup linebacker Trevor Reilly did a little moonlighting at defensive end against BYU and ended up with two sacks and three forced fumbles. So he’s an option off the bench, I guess. Utah lost a Kruger to the NFL (defensive tackle Paul is now with the Ravens) but start two more Krugers along the defensive line. Sophomore end Joe is extremely fast at 6-feet-7, 270 pounds and junior Dave is a decent three-technique. Senior end Derrick Shelby has already batted down three passes this year.
- It’s easy to look at Utah’s secondary depth chart, see a big mush of scout-team sophomores with no prior starting experience and say “Wow, Utah has problems at defensive back.” Of course, it’s also easy to look at their second-half passer efficiency allowed of 99.41 (20th in the country) and 4:3 interception-to-touchdown ratio and say, “Wow, Utah has no problems at defensive back.” Reality is probably closer to the latter conclusion. First-year free safeties Keith McGill (first-team junior college All-American) and Eric Rowe are great, complete players. Junior corner Ryan Lacy has ridiculous speed and has improved immensely in his career.
- Lacy and junior wideout Reggie Dunn each run 4.3-second 40s and stand deep to return kickoffs. Utah misses Walter Camp first-team All-American punt returner Shaky Smithson (now with the Packers), but 5-foot-7, 150-pound walk-on Griff McNabb makes for a great story and does a decent job of giving the offense good field position after punts.
- Much of Utah’s offensive success depends on junior quarterback Jordan Wynn’s transition to the pro-style offense. Wynn performed fairly well against Mountain West opponents in his first two years as the Utes’ starter, but now he’ll have to face Pac-12 defense, something I’m sure he’s not especially excited about. He completed 23 of 46 passes in the loss to USC, including just 2 of 7 under the pressure of the fateful last drive. He’s throwing a little more sidearm this year after offseason shoulder surgery, but tape seems to show that his velocity is back to what he’s used to.
- Junior-college transfer John White IV leads a strong rushing attack. The shifty, one-cut running back set all sorts of school records at Los Angeles Harbor College; this year, he’s averaging 6.2 yards per carry and 127 per game. Subtract fullback Harvey Langi’s contributions and Utah is averaging 7.4 yards per carry as a team. Dunn is second on the team in rushing after a 51-yard touchdown on a reverse.
- Utah’s offensive line strength is fairly dependent on right tackle Tony Bergstrom’s ability to go on Saturday. The 25-year-old three-year starter is an absolute stud but currently questionable with a knee injury. The line is already without guard Isaac Asiata (ankle) and four-star recruit Benji Kemoeatu (academics)—right guard Sam Brenner has been a revelation this year, center Tevita Stevens has 26 career starts and left tackle John Cullen was once the No. 1 junior college offensive line prospect but they won’t be able to do it all themselves without Bergstrom. If he plays, the line looks great. If he doesn’t, Utah starts special teamer Percy Taumoelau.
- Coverted quarterback DeVonte Christopher is the Utes’ top target for the second straight year. He’s very good but I’m surprised coach Whittingham hasn’t had him throw any passes yet in his career. Dunn is the burner in this offense but has only 7 receiving yards thus far. Chow’s schemes love using the tight end so expect a few targets for big Kendrick Moeai.
- On a somber note, defensive tackle Ron Tongaonevai will miss an indefinite amount of time mourning the loss of his late bride Janelle. Just 90 minutes after the Utes’ win over Montana State on Sept. 1, a driver ran a red light and t-boned Janelle’s car, killing himself and Janelle. The couple had been married just 13 months. This is absolutely heartbreaking to read.
Three Choppy Sentences of Analysis and Some Numbers:
Utah allows only 2.6 yards per carry. BUT Keith Price isn’t about to fumble 25 times like Jake Heaps did against the Utes. THUS, …well, not really thus anything. I’m predicting an extremely exciting game. Sorry, that was actually four sentences. Five. Six. I’m rattled!
U of U 20, UW 18
INTERNET NOTE: Don’t have cable? Out of the area? I’ll be posting links to internet feeds during the game on my twitter account, @EntendreDaGiant.