Brian Johnson has been consistently steady, but hardly prolific so far this season. Johnson went into the season touted as a guy who could beat you both by throwing the football and by running it out of Utah's flex-spread offensive system.
An early shoulder separation perhaps has limited Johnson in putting up the numbers he otherwise could have, particularly on the ground. He averages a mere 165 yards per game through the air, and only has 56 yards rushing on the year. Johnson has also thrown for 10 touchdowns to go along with seven interceptions.
Utah uses backup Corbin Louks for about six or seven reps per game. Louks is primarily used to run the ball when he's in, although he has thrown the ball six times on the year for two touchdown passes.
Utah at Running Back
One could very well make the argument that starting running back Darrell Mack saved Utah's season as much as anyone else on the team. Utah started out the season focused on throwing the football, as the running game was non-existent. Enter Mack, who has changed the face of what Utah tries to do offensively. He has ran for 1,072 yards and nine touchdowns on the year.
Utah has developed very much into a run-first offensive system. Mack is a slashing-type back who is very good at making cuts through the hole. He will be backed up primarily by Roy Stowers and Darryl Poston.
Utah at Receiver
The Utes field a very solid rotation of receivers. They're led by Derek Richards, who has 49 catches on the year for 532 yards and two touchdowns. Joining Richards will be Brandon Godfrey, Brian Hernandez and Marquis Wilson, who have 42, 33 and 17 catches on the year, respectively.
Utah's Offensive Line
Utah is a bit inexperienced but effective up front. They've allowed the Utes to put up efficient, if not spectacular, offensive numbers, as Utah has very much turned to a run-heavy offensive system that relies mostly on misdirection plays rather than straight drop-backs for the majority of their plays through the air.
Utah's strength on the OL is up the middle behind center Kyle Gunther and right guard Ryan Conley, who are considered Utah's best offensive linemen. They front a solid, but not dominating, offensive front.
BYU against Utah's run attack
Stopping Utah on the ground will be one of the biggest keys of the game for BYU. Despite all the trick plays and misdirection, Utah is very much an offense that is focused on running the ball. BYU's defense, likewise, is focused on stopping the run, and the Cougars have done so very well throughout the year.
It will be BYU's nose guards against Gunther and primarily Conley up the middle. If Eathyn Manumaleuna and Rick Wolfley can continue to demand double teams and not get moved, then BYU should be fine. If Gunther is able to handle either NT by himself, then Utah should have a productive day on the ground.
BYU against Utah's passing attack
One could argue that BYU's zone-heavy 3-4 system is perfect for what Utah tries to do through the air. As stated, an alarmingly few of Utah's pass attempts come with Johnson dropping straight back. He will drop back on occasion, but a lot of Utah's pass plays will come with misdirection on play-action and everything else imaginable.
Utah has a very solid corps of receivers, but none of them have shown the ability to beat a defense deep save for perhaps Wilson. Utah's opportunities to go deep have been limited by Johnson's early shoulder separation, and it remains unclear up until game time if Johnson can actually generate enough arm strength to consistently complete passes over the top of coverage.
It will be BYU versus over-aggression. BYU has already seen what Utah tries to do offensively when the Cougars went up against Tulsa, and didn't fare all that well, allowing the Tulsa offense to go up and down the field. A lot of Tulsa's success came with BYU's defense being undisciplined and leaving their assignments to jump on plays that were then misdirected. If BYU can shutdown the Utah running attack and be disciplined in their defensive assignments, then they should be able to shutdown the Ute offensive attack.
Utah's Defensive Line
This is a unit that has seen a lot of improvement throughout the year, which directly corresponds with the return of defensive tackle Gabe Long from injury and the emergence of defensive end Paul Kruger. Utah's strength is at the end positions, where Kruger will join with Martail Burnett to form what is one of the better DE duos in the conference.
Utah is also strong up the middle with Long and Koa Misi. The defensive front is the primary reason why Utah is ranked fifth in the nation in run defense.
Utah at Linebacker
Utah will start three decent linebackers, led by outside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, who is Utah's second-leading tackler with 74 tackles on the year. Sylvester will be joined by middle linebacker Joe Jianonni and outside linebacker Malakai Mokofisi.
Utah's linebackers are run in a way that Mokofisi is used primarily to take on blockers, while Sylvester is left to roam free and make most of the plays with Jianonni. Sylvester is very good in open space and will be called on a lot to be responsible for Harvey Unga out in the flat on passing plays.
Steve Tate is Utah's leader in the secondary and the leading tackler on the team, with 90 tackles on the year. Tate was moved from free safety to strong safety early in the year, and it has paid dividends. He plays like a linebacker by staying close to the line of scrimmage on most downs.
Utah's cornerbacks are arguably the best in the conference and the strength of Utah's defense, along with their defensive ends. Brice McCain, along with R.J. Stanford, have been stingy in pass coverage, as they're able to cover receivers in man coverage and thereby allow Utah to be creative in what they do with their front seven. Sean Smith is used primarily as a nickel back.
BYU against Utah's run defense
Utah's front seven should pose the biggest challenge for Harvey Unga and company on the year. We like how the Cougar offensive line has quietly progressed throughout the year in both run-blocking and in pass-blocking. Expect Utah to stack the box in hopes of stopping Unga early on, putting pressure on Max Hall to make plays.
The Cougar offensive line versus Utah's defensive fronts should be a very competitive battle. While Utah's defensive strength is on the edges, BYU's is up the middle, where Ray Feinga, Travis Bright and Sete Aulai can be punishing in their run-blocking.
It will be BYU's middle blockers against Gabe Long. As mentioned, Utah's run defense saw much improvement with the return of Long to the lineup. If the Cougar offensive front can handle Long and make him move where they want him to move, then the offense should see some good success.
The team that runs best up the middle should very well be the team that wins the game when it's all said and done. Both teams have had success both running the ball up the middle and stopping the run up the middle throughout the year, which makes for an intriguing battle on both sides of the ball.
BYU against Utah's pass defense
Utah will go with man-coverage with little over-the-top help from its safeties. Utah is able to do this due to how good their corners are in man-coverage. Look for Utah's corners to play very close to the line of scrimmage and be very physical with BYU's wideouts.
The course of last year's game changed when Utah's CBs jammed BYU's WRs off the snap, throwing off the timing and consistency of the patterns run by the Cougar wide receivers. Look for more of the same on Saturday.
The first one will be Dennis Pitta versus whoever the Utes try to put on him. Look for BYU to split out Pitta wide, creating mismatches for Utah's man-heavy defensive scheme the same way they did with Harline a year ago. Look for Utah to try and shadow Pitta with free safety Robert Johnson.
Another key matchup which looks to be another mismatch BYU may be able to exploit is Unga and Manase Tonga in the flat against Utah's linebackers. Utah's defense has looked exploitable in the flat in recent games. Unga, together with Tonga, should pose the biggest challenge Utah has seen to date in regards to covering running backs out of the backfield.
Final Score Prediction: BYU 27, Utah 20