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October 11, 2013

Ask the Expert: Utah

On Saturday, Stanford and Utah will meet for the first time since the Utes joined the Pac-12. Cardinal Sports Report caught up with UteZone.com editor Dan Sorensen to preview the matchup.

Cardinal Sports Report: With tight end Jake Murphy's wrist injury and the season-ending injury receiver Kenneth Scott suffered in Utah's first game, the Utes have suffered considerable attrition in the passing game. Which receivers/tight ends should Stanford watch for on Saturday, and how would you assess the state of Utah's passing game?

Dan Sorensen: The state of Utah's passing game is in flux. Travis Wilson will have to find a way to bounce back from throwing six interceptions to UCLA (four of which came on tipped passes). The injuries to Murphy and Scott have also hurt the cause, and the Utes will need several playmakers to step up.

Utah's biggest receiving threat is junior Dres Anderson, who averages more than 100 yards per game and has emerged as a threat to break a big play every time he touches the ball. Seniors Sean Fitzgerald and Anthony Denham are both big, strong receivers that have played well at times during the season. However, neither would be considered fleet of foot.

At tight end, Utah will split reps between true freshman Siale Fakailoatonga and JUCO transfers Greg Reese and Evan Moeai. All three have seen reps this fall, but none have seen extended time with the first team offense. One of them will have to step up on Saturday.

CSR: How has the addition of Dennis Erickson impacted Utah's offense?

DS: Dennis Erickson has provided a shot in the arm to a Utah offense that struggled in its first two years in the Pac-12. Erickson has not only tailored the scheme to better fit Utah's personnel, but has also brought a badly needed confidence to the offense. Travis Wilson has blossomed under his coaching, and if they can eliminate turnovers, Utah has a chance to end the season as one of the more formidable offenses in the conference.

CSR: How has quarterback Travis Wilson progressed this season. Additionally, to your knowledge has he recovered from the cold/fever that plagued him last week?

DS: There is no denying that Travis Wilson is a different quarterback than he was last season as a true freshman. He has shown tremendous growth in his decision making abilities and toughness, his nine interceptions in two Pac-12 games notwithstanding. One of the pleasant surprises of the season has been Wilson's emergence as a true running threat. However, most of his yards come from executing the read option as opposed to scrambling. Wilson claims to be fully recovered from the illness that hindered his performance against UCLA, which is good news for the Utes. Utah will need him to play the game of his life to have a chance on Saturday.

CSR: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Utah's defense? How do you foresee them matching up with Stanford's power run game oriented, pro-style offense?

Utah's strength on defense is along the defensive line. Led by senior defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi and senior defensive end Trevor Reilly, the Utes have been stingy against the run and lead the conference in sacks. The line is deep, with Utah rotating as many as 12 players across the front four, which will help them stay fresh against a power running team. The linebacking corps has improved significantly over the course of the season, especially with the return of sophomore Jason Whittingham from an early season injury. Because of the strength of the front seven, rushing yards may be a little more difficult to come by for the Cardinal.

The Ute secondary struggled tremendously early on, as the top four cornerbacks were seeing their first FBS football action. However, they have progressively improved as the season has advanced. Utah is vulnerable to big pass plays on the outside, especially if Hogan can show good accuracy.

CSR: What does Utah need to do to pull the upset?

DS: Utah needs to do three things to have a chance to pull off the upset. First and foremost, Utah needs to hang on to the football. In its first two Pac-12 games of the season, the Utes have played good Oregon State and UCLA teams to the wire. However, in both games they have come up just short of the win, largely because the offense has committed nine turnovers in those two games.

Second, Utah needs to move the chains. Although the offense has produced several big plays throughout the year, the offense is among the worst in the conference in third down conversions. Utah needs to sustain drives and keep its defense off the field to have a shot at winning.

Third, the Utes need to slow down Stanford's running attack. Utah's defensive philosophy is centered around stopping the run first and making teams beat them through the air. That will be no different on Saturday.

CSR: Your prediction for Saturday's game and why?

DS: Although they have yet to have a signature win this season, this Utah team has talent. If Stanford walks into Rice-Eccles Stadium without taking the Utes seriously, Utah is talented enough to pull of an upset. The Utes match up well with Stanford's strengths, so it should be closer than some pundits predict. That said, until Utah can prove that they can finish off games when it counts against conference competition, I'll pick Stanford winning a close one 21-17.


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