OSU vs. Utes: 5 Questions for Utah insider

WE WANTED TO know more about Utah and we wanted someone with their finger on the pulse of the Utah football team to tell us. And so we asked Robert Jackson, who covers Utah for KSL in Salt Lake City. Here's how he broke it down...

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BF.C: Utah at 2-0 looks to be riding high but how much is known at this point about how good Utah might be this season given that one of the games was against a struggling FCS school in Weber State? Put another way, where do you peg the Utes on a power rankings within the conference right now?

Jackson: It is hard to say where the Utes fit in the overall Pac-12 picture only two games in, with one win coming against a really good Utah State team breaking in a new coach and another coming in a glorified scrimmage against Weber State. What is known is the mark of co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson on the Utes' offensive identity.

Just two games into the young 2013 schedule and the Utes have already completed four passes that went for more yards than the longest pass in 2012 (47).

The Utes have a goal to have at least five plays of 20 yards or more (per game), and through two games they already have 15. Based on the play of the offense alone, it should be good enough to vault the Utes into the middle of the Pac-12 rankings, but based on the questions we've seen on the defensive side of the ball you have to drop them a spot or two.

I have them pegged at No. 8, behind Arizona but ahead of Cal.

BF.C: What are the biggest strengths for Utah on offense and defense, what are the most questionable areas?

Jackson: A. If you told me that Travis Wilson would throw for over 300 yards in the season opener against Utah State, I would have thought you were delirious. Wilson only had one 300 yard game last season (311 yards against Arizona), but so far he has been the definite leader of this revamped Utah offense.

In one half alone against Weber State, Wilson was 14-19 for 264 yards and three touchdowns while adding 38 and 51 yard runs that also went for scores. His QB rating was 99.7, the highest in a game since Andrew Luck recorded a 99.9 in Nov. 2010 against Cal.

His receivers, who were suspect to drop passes through fall camp, have performed extremely well, with senior Sean Fitzgerald stepping in nicely for the injured Kenneth Scott.

The weakness on offense has been the performance of the running backs, who have struggled to get any sort of rhythm.

Starting running back Kelvin York ran the ball four times for 23 yards against Weber State – not a horrible statistic, but when you figure in he had a 24 yard TD run, it means that he also had three runs that netted -1 yard.

James Poole and Lucky Radley have taken advantage of opportunities that have come their way, so don't be too surprised to see more carries headed their way.


B. How do you replace a first round NFL draft pick? The short answer is that you don't, but DT Tenny Palepoi has done a nice job of trying to fill the shoes of current Carolina Panther Star Lotulelei. Joining Palepoi on the line are DE Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard, who combine to make the defensive line Utah's strongest unit on the defensive side of the ball.

The linebackers have performed well thus far, but it will be interesting to see if they are able to keep up with the Pac-12 speed that plagued that unit a year ago.

By and large, the Utes' defensive weakness lies in its secondary – having to replace three corners that landed on NFL rosters.

BF.C: Who are the specific Utah players Oregon State fans should watch for, and why?

Jackson:
DT Tenny Palepoi – the Utes defensive tackle already has 2.5 sacks on the season.

TE Jake Murphy – although he hasn't been utilized much in the Utes first two games with only 4 catches for 81 yards, Murphy should be a key to the Utes offense moving forward.

S Eric Rowe – led Utah with 10 tackles against Utah State, his fourth career game with double-digit tackles. He has 13 tackles this season.

BF.C: What are the three keys to victory for Utah if they are to come out of this game with a win?

Jackson: A. Pressure the Quarterback: With Oregon State using a lot of max protection, Utah will have to bring additional pressure from all angles to try and disrupt Sean Mannion's rhythm and see if they can force him into making a few mistakes.

B. Double up Cooks: Utah can't let WR Brandin Cooks and Mannion get into a groove or it could be a long day for its secondary. Expect Utah to try to take away Cooks by giving additional safety help over the top.

C. Protect Wilson: Last season's matchup with Oregon State in Corvalis was not kind to Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. Wilson was sacked twice, fumbling on the first one, and also threw two interceptions. The loss still lingers in Wilson's mind. The Utes' offensive line will be tasked with protecting their QB, who has shown, if given time, that he can make the correct reads and deliver the ball to where it needs to be. Wilson ranks third in the nation in yards per completion (18.26) and eighth in passing efficiency (202.2).

BF.C: How is Utah recruiting going at this stage?

Jackson: Utah has seen its best three classes since joining the Pac-12 conference - and it's not even close.

At Pac-12 Media Day, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said that up to three-fourths of the Utes' 2013 class were recruits that they wouldn't have been able to attract before. And with Dennis Erickson on board, the Utes are also venturing into some new territories – Utah has five players coming out on official visits this week from the state of Florida.

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Utah has 10 known recruits in the 2014 class according to Scout.com with an average star rating of 2.70.

  • Jackson, along with 10 other members of the KSL Sports Team all pick Utah to win. The lone member of the 12-person KSL group picking Oregon State to win is Dave Noriega.

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