No. 17 Utah played what I would call a rivalry game last weekend against Utah State and beat the Aggies by the surprising score of 35 – 17 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Why was that surprising you ask? While most pundits have Utah winning the Mountain West Conference again this year, Utah State is picked anywhere from fifth to seventh place in the Western Athletic Conference. Utah State is also breaking in a new coach, former Ute defensive coordinator Gary Anderson, and Utah was eager to give their ex-coach a warm welcome back to Salt Lake. Also on the line was the nation's longest winning streak so the Utes were motivated to get out early and often on the blue Aggies. So why did the game end up as close as it did?
First, in looking at the game summary and the box score, the game was not as close as it was. Utah State benefitted from going against a rookie quarterback, capitalized on three turnovers and some good field position early. Utah finished with 519 yards of offense and held Utah State to 342, which included a 96-yard touchdown run by the Aggies fine running back Robert Turbin. Utah St. scored first on a 29-yard field goal by Chris Ulinski. Two minutes later, David Reed caught a six-yard pass from the rookie Terrance Cain. Utah scored again four minutes later on a 22-yard Cain pass to John Peel. On Utah State's ensuing drive Turbin took the handoff on the four yard line and didn't look back scoring on a 96 yard touchdown run with five minutes left in the first quarter with the score of 14 to 10. Similar to the Spartan - USC game, it was all downhill for the Aggies in the second quarter as Utah scored two unanswered touchdowns and a safety before Utah State scored a late touchdown to end the half. Utah pitched a shutout in the second half while scoring one touchdown in the third quarter and another safety in the fourth.
Some of the key stat's for Utah were 519 total yards, with Cain throwing for 286 yards on 20 of 30 passing and two long touchdowns and one interception. Running back Matt Asiata gained 156 yards on 36 carries and 2 touchdowns, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and a long of 14 yards. David Reed caught 10 balls for 172 yards and a TD, while John Peel caught 4 for 58 yards and one score. On the defensive side of the ball, Utah allowed a stingy 121 yards passing by what I consider a similar if not better QB in Diondre Borel, than what the Spartans will trot out on Saturday. Utah did allow 196 yards on the ground but that included the 96-yard touchdown run by Turbin.
Therefore, what can the coaching staff and players take from Utah's first game? First of all, going into the season, the defensive unit was said to be the strength of the team for the Utes. And, while they gave up 17 points, Utah State had good field position on turnovers early on and had the one big play. Conversely, Utah State's Offense is said to be their strength this year, until Anderson can rework the defensive side of the ball, so this game was strength against strength with Utah winning that battle. Utah's high-powered offense from last season did drop off somewhat, but did gain 519 yards, and Cain passed his first test. I am sure they will try to add more to their game plan this week against the Spartans.
What does that mean for this Saturday? It should be strength against weakness on both sides of the ball. San Jose State's offense against their strong defense and the Spartan strong defense against their rebuilt or is it reloaded offense. While Utah's defense should not be as strong as USC's, they will still be hard to move the ball against, especially if the offense doesn't attempt to open things up significantly. The same holds true on defense for the Spartans. If the Spartan offense doesn't extend some drives, the "D" will eventually wear out as they did in the USC game, but should be able to weather the storm a little longer against the smaller Utes. One thing I do see happening is the Utes will throw downfield much more than USC did, and that may pose other problems for the young defensive backs of the Spartans. Coach Whittingham will also run the same rollout pass to keep the Spartan front seven from teeing off on the young Terrance Cain. On the run, look for Utah to go right at the Spartan defense to negate the Spartan side to side speed and as we all saw last year at the end of the season, teams were able to gain large chunks in the second half of those games.
The Spartans have a punchers chance in beating the Utes if the defense can stay off the field, cause 2-3 turnovers, giving the offense short field positions, and hold a few of Utah's drives to field goal attempts rather then seven points every time. I also look at the home cooking as being a plus as well, and a loud, late evening home crowd to give at least the defense an extra burst of energy. I feel the offense will open things up as well at home against a weaker opponent. The spread is 14 points, we will see if the Spartans can get back to being one of the better home teams in the WAC or continue to play subpar ball against a better opponent.
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Phil Paulsen is the Football Editor of Inside Sparta. You may contact Phil with any questions, comments, or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org
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