Know Your Foe: Utah

In 2013 Utah came close to being the only Pac-12 South to defeat Arizona State. If that hasn’t already grabbed ASU’s attention then surely the Utes’ current 6-1 record has as they battle ASU for the division championship. What kind of challenges does this improved squad present? Publisher Brian Swinney answers Sparky’s Huddle’s members questions on ASU’s next opponent.

This year’s Utah team is obviously much improved from 2013. What is the big difference between this year and last year? Where'd the big improvements come from?

Swinney: Increase in talent, closing out games, and not turning the ball over. The defense just continues to get better each year and now they're actually showcasing a D filled with Pac 12 players instead of a bunch of limited guys that work hard. They're getting production out of an elite back in Devontae Booker and this team looks like it has the 'it' factor where they're out-working teams at the end of games to close it out. That's not something they've done the last couple of years.

When Utah first joined the conference; lack of speed seemed to be a concern. Do you feel this aspect has improved since being a member of the Pac-12 and what team unit benefitted the most in this department?

Swinney: The speed is getting there, but Utah is still probably one of the slower teams in the conference, at least in comparison to other Pac 12 teams. Kaelin Clay has been a nice addition and he has plenty of speed. They're added speed to the secondary as well in S Tevin Carter. A lot of the new speed is unproven and not game-ready though. The unit that has probably benefitted the most is probably the secondary due to the addition of Carter, but he's been banged up the past few weeks. Speed isn't Utah's game, and may never be.

Has Travis Wilson sealed the starting QB role with his play in the SC game? Which QB do you think gives the Utes the best chance to win, not only against ASU but also in the long run?

Swinney: It's Wilson job and it should be. He's not perfect and is going to have trouble with consistency at times, but he gives Utah the best chance to win most weeks and is easily the best choice over the course of a 12-game season.

Has Utah considered a permanent two-QB system with Wilson and Kendal Thompson?

Swinney: Per Whittingham, no. I'm surprised that they don't use Thompson for a snap here and a snap there (see what Cal does with their QBs). You'd think that situational use for Thompson would be best, but unless one guy is struggling mightily, an injury occurs, or Utah is blowing out an opponent, the Utes stick with one QB. At least that's been the MO this season so far.

Devontae Booker is probably the best newcomer and running back in the Pac-12 this year. Have you’ve been surprised how quickly he hit the ground running after sitting out 2013? What are the traits that make him such a special player?

Swinney: I think I'm more surprised that it took the coaches 3 and a half games to figure out something everyone else saw back in the spring. He runs hard, he keeps his pads low, and he ALWAYS falls forward for an extra yard or two. Booker has very good vision and start/stop ability. Could be more patient at times in letting things develop, but he's an elite back that may be gone after this year to the NFL.

What is your view of the passing game – weak spot on offense or just does enough to keep opposing defenses off balance?

Swinney: Still a weak spot. There is ability there and that's what other teams will always worry about, but the production has been pretty poor for a group of receivers that many thought could be one of the top 4 or 5 pass catching units in the conference. It will keep other teams off-balance, but the USC game was the best performance in the Utes 4 Pac 12 games and it's not like they were slinging it around with ease. Wilson isn't consistent enough right now and the receivers are dropping too many balls for anyone to fear this group at all, but that can change at any moment.

What is so special about the play of the defense this year? What are their biggest strengths and will they be fully healthy this Sat.?

Swinney: They're tough. They don't make many mistakes and when LB Gionni Paul returned from injury, they really took on a new look. Utah is finally forcing turnovers, and it all starts up front with the pass rush initiated by Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick. The secondary has some holes and WILL be beat if the rush isn't there (see 1st quarter against USC), but the line is constantly in the quarterback's face, so it masks those deficiencies.

Health is a big concern right now though. LB Jason Whittingham hasn't played in weeks due to an injury and won't be back this week. LB Jared Norris (arguably Utah's top defender) was injured Saturday. His status is unknown. Same with CB/S Eric Rowe. S Tevin Carter hasn't played since the 1st quarter against UCLA. Gionni Paul is constantly nicked up. The team's best CB (Reggie Porter) tore his ACL in fall camp. The injuries are starting to mount.

What major factors played in to Utah's loss against Washington State earlier this year?

Swinney: Utah played the last 3 quarters not to lose. Plain and simple. They stopped bringing pressure and Halliday picked them apart (can't cover when there's no pressure). That and the receivers starting dropping passes, but it all started with the play not to lose mentality.

During the pre-season, people were calling this a make or break season for head coach Kyle Whittingham. How serious was that talk and is that pressure now gone? What were the pre-season expectations and how have they met/exceeded them?

Swinney: It was very serious, and still is. Whittingham has had a great start to the year, but Utah's next four games are at ASU, vs Oregon, at Stanford, and vs. Arizona. Four games they could easily lose, especially with all of these injuries. If the Utes go 1-4 to close out the year and finish 7-5, I'm not sure how happy the fan base is going to be considering the big start.

To this point though, he's silenced all of the critics and there's no reason to think he won't be back at Utah in 2015 for what shapes up to be a big year. Preseason expectations for most rational people were anywhere from 5-7 to 7-5. He has exceeded that by a mile so far. I had them 3-4 through seven games when looking at it in the preseason.

What are your keys to the game and final score prediction?

Swinney: Utah is going to need the injured guys to get healthy. If they're not, Utah could struggle. I've missed on FIVE straight Utah predictions so Ute fans have begun to demand that I continue picking against them. I'll oblige and say that the injuries are too much to overcome against an ASU team that can score quickly, is balanced, and has an improving defense. Won't be the blowout that we saw the last time Utah was in Tempe, but it won't be that close. Arizona State 30 Utah 19.

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