Broncos Set To Take On Fiesta Bowl Champs

Utah now has control of its destiny. If the Utes can win the remainder of their games, they should lock up a second BCS Bowl in the last three years. The talented Utes entertain Boise State Saturday in what could be a big step towards that goal.

It's David vs. Goliath.  Villanova vs. Georgetown.  Tampa Bay vs. Joe Montana's San Francisco 49'ers.  On paper, the pundits and experts give Boise State little chance against the powerful Utah Utes, who just two seasons ago stole the Broncos' thunder.  As both teams were nearing the end of the season undefeated, it was Utah which was chosen for the Fiesta Bowl, not Boise State.  The Utes then went out and proved the BCS selection was deserved, pounding Pittsburgh of the Big East.  Oddsmakers in Las Vegas now have Utah as 5 and a half point favorites—just short of the eight point spread that Georgia was favored over the Broncos.


Now that fellow Mountain West Conference member BYU has ended TCU's hopes of making a BCS Bowl, the Utes are talking about another trip to a big bowl game.    


The 2006 Utes feature many different faces than the ones which swept to that Fiesta Bowl title.  This year's Broncos are by and large still the same cast of characters that were bypassed in favor of Utah. Utah returns eight starters on defense and four on offense


Utah led the Mountain West Conference in offense last year.  Quarterback Brett Ratliff (6-4, 224, Sr.) stepped in for starter Brian Johnson last year and led the Utes to a win over BYU and then a victory over Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl last year.  He's 60-110 this year (54.55%) for 800 yards with eight touchdowns and only one interception.  He's a threat to run, with 117 yards rushing as well.


Darryl Poston (5-11, 197, Sr.) is the lone running back in the backfield for Utah.  He's run for 154 yards on 34 carries (4.5 average) and two touchdowns.  Backup Mike Liti (5-10, 215, Jr.) has shown a propensity to be explosive (18-125) with a 6.9 yards per carry average. 


Receiver Brian Hernandez is the most dangerous of the Ute receivers but he is coming off a surgically repaired ankle and has yet to regain his form.  Derrek Richards (5-11, 175, Jr.) and sophomores Brent Casteel (5-10, 193) and Marquis Wilson (5-11, 179) are the other wideouts.  Richards is the top receiver so far this year with 19 catches for 233 yards and three touchdowns while Wilson has accounted for 14 receptions for 221 yards and two scores.  Casteel has chipped in to the balanced attack with 11 catches this season. 


The offensive line is one of the best in the country, evidenced by the fact that Utah has not given up a sack all season.  If the Boise State defensive line cannot generate pressure any better than they did against Hawai'i, Utah will be able to do pretty much what it wants to do.  Senior Tavo Tupola (6-4, 300) anchors that line at left tackle.  He'll be joined by right tackle Jason Boone (6-4, 300, Jr.), guards Robert Conley (6-1, 310, So.) and Zane Beadles (6-4, 308, Fr.) and center Kyle Gunther (6-4, 302, Jr.)


Eric Weddle (6-0, 200, Sr.), the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in '05, is an All-American candidate in his senior season.  Last week, Weddle was the Walter Camp National Player of the Week following a performance against San Diego State that saw him return two interceptions for touchdowns and score a third on offense.  Weddle is a game-changer and is all over the field with a nose for the ball, very similar to Boise State's Quinton Jones, except that he is used more.


Weddle plays cornerback this season after starring at strong safety last year, moving into the new role because of a lineup change.  Casey Evans (6-0, 200, Sr.) is another standout in the secondary at rover.  Eric Shyne (5-10, 178, Sr.) is the other corner, with free safety Steve Tate (5-11, 200, Jr.) and John Peel (6-2, 196, So.) taking Weddle's place at strong safety.


Utah features one of the top defensive lines in the country, anchored by tackle Kelly Talavou, who moves from nose tackle.  Paul Soliai (6-4, 315, Sr.) will start at nose, with ends Martali Burnett (6-3, 252, Jr.) and Soli Lefiti (6-4, 265, Sr.) joining him on the line.


Joe Jiannoni (6-1, 235, Jr.) will start at the middle linebacker position while Kyle Brady (6-1, 232, Jr.) is the "Sam" linebacker.


Wilson has averaged 10.80 on punt returns although Weddle will likely see time there as well.  Brent Casteel averages 17.33 yards per kickoff return with Richards also back for the Utes.  Sophomore Louis Sakoda (5-10, 175) will see dual duty at both placekicker and punter for Utah.  Ute coaches had preferred someone else to do the punting, yet Sakoda is 11th in the nation with a 44.40 average.  He's also a perfect five-for-five on field goals.


Utah is 39th in the country in rushing with a 139.65 yards per game while they are 47th in passing with 220 yards per contest thus far.  That puts the Utes 33rd in the nation in total offense, just nine yards behind Boise State.  However, Utah has played much tougher competition, including a game in Los Angeles against powerful UCLA.  Utah is 21st in scoring, averaging 35.25 points, just one point per game shy of the Broncos.


The Utes are 39th in rushing defense, allowing just 104.8 yards per game but it's the pass defense, led by Weddle, where the team shines.  Utah ranks 19th in the nation in that category, allowing a mere 149 yards per game.  Overall, they are also 19th in total defense and 15th in scoring defense, allowing just 11.3 points per contest.  Although much has been mentioned about Boise State's turnover margin (+7), Utah is right behind at plus six.  The Utes have lost three fumbles and thrown three interceptions, but they have also generated 12 turnovers on defense.


Boise State has been heralded for its special teams play for several years, yet it's Utah that has performed this year.  The Utes are 16th in punt return defense allowing just over three yards per punt.


Buoyed by BYU's upset win over 17th-ranked TCU last night, Utah now has a clear path to a second BCS Bowl in three years.  Utah has a big MWC game against TCU next week in Salt Lake City.  They also get BYU at home, leaving them as the favorites to win the conference.  The experts predict Utah will have little problem with Boise State, and then they just have to win their conference games to earn the nod.


Kickoff for the sold-out game is set for 1 P.M. 

Bronco Country Top Stories