Ask the Expert Q&A: Utah

To get a better sense of Utah from someone who covers the Utes' program we spoke with UteSportsReport.com's Brian Swinney for his take on Saturday's game with Arizona State.

SunDevilSource: ASU and Utah played last season in Tempe in on Nov. 1 with both teams 6-1 and ranked in the Top-20. In that game Utah quarterback Travis Wilson threw for just 57 yards and Utah had 241 yards of total offense in a 19-16 ASU win with Devontae Booker rushing for 146 yards but needing 37 carries (3.9 per). Is the Utah offense better this season if so in what areas? 

Brian Swinney: "It's better because Travis Wilson is finally playing up to his potential. The senior had an up and down first three years, but he's looked significantly improved this year with a better command of the offense and more confidence in himself to make dangerous throws, which he's often been successful on. The Utah wide receiving corps, while not great, is more dynamic this year. It's also helpful when you have an offensive coordinator calling plays that the player trust, which is a far cry from last year."

SunDevilSource: Utah is an incredible plus-10 in turnover margin already this season, on a pace that is unprecedented in recent years in the Pac-12. It also is converting on 95 percent of its red zone chances thus far, much better than it has done in recent years. Are the Utes going to be able to continue those types of numbers or have they been fortunate to this point and the numbers are somewhat outside the overall season expectation? Why or why not? 

Brian Swinney: "Those numbers will drop, but you have to credit Utah for taking advantage of opportunities. They're not dropping potential INTs like in years past, and the diversity in the offense (particularly Travis Wilson's ability to run the ball effectively) is keeping teams off-guard in the red zone when they're often focusing on Devontae Booker. Now that they start taking on some attacking defenses like ASU and UCLA, they'll turn the ball over more, and the red zone efficiency can't stay that high because, well, nature says it can't."

SunDevilSource: Is Utah a legitimate Top-10 caliber team in the country this year and do you expect it will finish with such a ranking? What is your reasoning? 

Brian Swinney: "They're earned the right to be considered a top 10 team to this point, and they're easily one of the top 20 in the country. I have no doubts about that, but there are still some talent and depth deficiencies that could cause problems as the season progresses. Utah has been very fortunate on the injury front so far this year, but injuries are going to start popping up eventually. I look at Utah a lot like I looked at Mississippi State last season who got out of the gates quickly, jumped up into the top 5, and then kind of ran out of gas at the end of the year once they had to continue taking on very good teams each week. Utah is good, very good, but I don't think they have all of the pieces to be considered an elite team over the course of 12 games."

SunDevilSource: Last week the Utes intercepted talented Jared Goff of Cal five times and Utah has generated 17 turnovers already this season in just five games. Who are the team's best players on defense and what has enabled this success? 

Brian Swinney: "It starts with linebacker Gionni Paul. In the preseason, he was overlooked for pretty much every watch list and all conference team, and we just laughed, knowing how good he is when healthy. The guy is the ultimate playmaker. If he played for UCLA or USC, people would be calling him a top 5 defensive player in the country. The guy forces turnovers and is the leader of the defense. Utah would be 3-2 without him. Next to him is linebacker Jared Norris who is another tackling machine. Dominique Hatfield is probably one of the top 3 or 4 corners in the conference and will take on each team's best receiver, while the defensive line is a by-committee group that is constantly pressuring quarterbacks and eating up blockers. The Utah defenders are so physical that they just end up wearing down teams. By the fourth quarter, they're often ready to tee off on quarterbacks because offensive lines are so beat up. It's a complete defense that really does play as one unit."

SunDevilSource: What are the areas in which the Utes are vulnerable on offense and defense in your estimation and could be challenged by ASU or other teams in the second half of the season? 

Brian Swinney: "The offensive line for Utah has struggled for much of the season in run blocking, although you wouldn't know it based on Booker's numbers. He just makes a lot of guys miss and breaks tackles. They had a huge improvement against Cal, but an attacking defense like ASU's could give them a lot of problems. Although Travis Wilson has improved, the passing game is still somewhat of a weakness. Utah doesn't take a lot of chances down the field and prefers to work the short passes to get their playmakers, like Britain Covey, in space where they can make guys miss. It's often a case of, will this bubble screen get 15 yards or go for -5 yards?"

SunDevilSource: What type of game are you expecting Saturday and what's your prediction? 

Brian Swinney: "I'm expecting something very close. I was impressed by what Arizona State did the last two weeks and have to wonder if they're in Utah's heads at all. I think this one comes down to the final possession, with Utah driving, and kicker Andy Phillips kicking a 48 yard field goal....that goes wide left. ASU 28 Utah 27."


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