BearTerritory: Utah's defensive line looked like a monster coming into the season. They're still pretty stout against the run (47th in the nation, 132.0 yards per game), but missing Lowell Lotulelei and Kylie Fitts has to have made an impact. Can you tell us a bit about how they went down, and about who's taking over their roles?
Dan Sorensen: Fitts went down early in the second game of the season against BYU with a foot injury that ended his season. His loss was a massive blow to a Utah defensive line, despite the fact that they're deep and talented. Part time starter and pass rush specialist Pita Taumoepenu takes Fitts' place as a starter and has two sacks and two forced fumbles on the year. He's a high motor player that is more effective against the pass than the run. Lowell Lotulelei was held out of the second half of the USC game with an undisclosed injury. He hasn't been ruled out for the Cal game, but it wouldn't be surprising if his reps were limited. His primary backup has been Pasoni Tasini, who has been one of the most impressive players on Utah's defense thus far this year. Tasini's 4.5 TFL this season are best among Utah's defensive tackles, Lotulelei included. Both Taumoepenu and Tasini will be relied upon to have big games if the Utes are to have any hope to slow down Cal's offense.
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1711890-bear-republic-podc...BT: The Utes' own the nation's 13th best pass efficiency defense (99.06) and are 28th in passing defense (182.25 yards per game) with six picks so far in the early goings. Could we see a lot of nickel against Cal's pass-heavy offense, and what makes that defensive backfield such a bugaboo for opposing passing attacks?
DS: Utah has one of the most talented secondaries in college football and is led by a number of upperclassmen. Junior free safety Marcus Williams was first team All Pac-12 last season and is playing even better this year. He's one of the best safeties in all of college football. Strong safety Chase Hansen was one of Utah's most impressive defenders against USC. Utah has four senior cornerbacks that are as good as any unit in the conference. Dominique Hatfield is Utah's best all-around corner and is finally back from an early season injury. Reginald Porter has two interceptions already this year and is playing his best football as a Ute. Nickel back Justin Thomas is a four year starter, and has a knack for making the big play. Brian Allen will also see a lot of action, and is a big corner that has played well this season. I expect Utah to play a lot of nickel and dime sets to try and combat a very potent Cal passing attack. Thomas and backup nickel back Boobie Hobbs will see more action than they have all season. They will need to be ready if Utah wants to win.
BT: Ah, Boobie Hobbs, the bane of Jared Goff's existence last season in Salt Lake City. Moving to offense we haven't seen much running out of Troy Williams, but any of us who covered West Coast recruiting know that he has it in him. Why do you suppose we haven't seen that dimension to his game yet this season?
DS: One of the skills that Williams developed at the JUCO level was evolving his game to be more of a pass-first quarterback, and that has translated to his play at Utah. Williams is more than capable of pulling the ball down and running, but he's extremely effective at picking his spots. Utah's first touchdown against USC came as a result of a Troy Williams run. The game this weekend should be similar. Williams will look to air it out early, but won't be afraid to pull it down and run once the opportunity presents itself.
BT: Against USC, Tim Patrick went for 100 yards receiving -- the second century mark of his career and his second 100-yard game in a row. What does he do so well as a receiver, and when was the last time Utah had a receiver like him?
DS: Patrick has been a real revelation for the Utes this season. The potential was always there, but injuries have severely limited his effectiveness and ability to see the field over the past two years. Patrick is big, strong, and has deceptively good speed. He's also been able to make the tough catch with defenders draped over him. Perhaps the biggest story about his 100 yard game last week was the fact that he did it with USC's all-everything corner Adoree Jackson locked up on him the entire game. Patrick has been a consistent big play guy all season long and will likely draw a lot of attention from defensive coordinators for the rest of the season.
BT: Could you shed some light on the season-long running back situation?
DS: Utah has taken a running back by committee approach throughout the season, especially since senior Joe Williams' surprise medical retirement following the BYU game in week two. All three of Utah's main running backs are averaging more than five yards per carry and each brings a different skill set. True freshman Zack Moss leads the team in both carries and rushing yardage, despite missing the first game of the year with an injury. Moss is a tough between-the-tackles runner with a good combination of size and speed. Sophomore Armand Shyne is a physical bruiser, and has seen his workload go up significantly since the San Jose State game in week three. Troy McCormick is more of a change-of-pace type back. He's a speedster that is averaging a team-high 5.8 yards per carry. He's also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and is averaging over 11 yards per catch. Utah coaches aren't shy about using the three backs interchangeably to keep them fresh. Although Moss is expected to get a lion's share of the carries - especially early. Overall, Utah's running backs are a solid group that are more than capable of hurting defenses on the ground. If the running backs have one weakness thus far this season, it's ball security issues. Utah running backs have fumbled seven times in four games, a disturbing trend that must be reversed if the Utes are to have any hope of accomplishing their goals.
BT: Any injuries of note?
DS: The Utah coaching staff treats injuries like a state secret, so unless it's a season-ending injury, you won't hear a lot about it until kickoff. As discussed above, Kylie Fitts is far and away the biggest loss. But starting tight end Siale Fakailoatonga was also lost for the season early on. Other than that, everyone else is expected to play - including Lowell Lotulelei.
BT: Final prediction?
DS: I wouldn't be surprised to see a close game much like last year. Utah's ability to run the football and control the line of scrimmage should have an impact on the game. And Utah's defense is decidedly better than Cal's - even with the injuries. In many ways, the teams are opposites of one another, and it should be fun to see who's strength gets the upper hand. Turnovers will probably be the deciding factor in the game. Whoever wins that battle will likely win the game. In the end though, I think a strong running game and a solid defensive effort will be enough for the Utes to come out ahead. My prediction? Utah wins 45-35.