Game Preview: Utah vs SDSU

The Utes travel to San Diego with second place in the MWC on the line..

Facts and Factor

No. 23 Utah (8-2, 5-1 MWC) plays San Diego State (7-3, 4-2 MWC) in San Diego on Saturday, Nov. 20. Kickoff is 7:00 p.m. PT (8:00 p.m. MT) in Qualcomm Stadium. The game will be televised by The Mtn. Radio is ESPN700 AM (espn700sports.com).

Saturday's game will be Utah's final road game as a member of the Mountain West Conference. The Utes will begin competing as a member of the Pac-12 Conference next fall.

After climbing as high as No. 5 in the BCS Standings and No. 6 in the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches' polls on Oct. 31, Utah is No. 23 in this week's BCS Standings, No. 25 in the A.P. poll and No. 24 in the coaches' poll following losses to TCU and Notre Dame.

8-2 Utah needs one win to secure its fourth-consecutive nine-win season in Kyle Whittingham's six-year tenure as head coach. The Utes went 9-4 in 2007, 13-0 in 2008 and 10-3 in 2009.

Utah has dropped back-to-back games for the first time since opening the 2007 season with two losses (vs. Oregon State and Air Force).

Sophomore QB Jordan Wynn returns to the site of his best game as a Ute. Last year as a true freshman, Wynn was named the Poinsettia Bowl Offensive MVP after leading Utah to a 37-27 victory over California in Qualcomm Stadium on Dec. 23. Wynn, a native of nearby Oceanside, Calif., passed for a career-high 338 yards and three touchdowns in the win.

Four straight wins has allowed Utah to break a tie series and take a 16-12-1 lead against SDSU. The Utes have a 7-6-1 edge in Qualcomm Stadium, where they have beaten the Aztecs three straight times since last losing there in 2002.

When Utah Has the Ball

The offense hasn't been as bad as it may have seemed last week. The Utes moved the ball down the ball down the field a few times, but were unable to capitalize and put points on the board. The red-zone efficiency was a strength earlier in the year, but has turned into a liability the past couple of weeks with field goals, turnovers, and turnovers on downs.

While the play of Jordan Wynn hasn't been terrible, his lack of leadership has been the biggest issue as the Utes have struggled against two high profile opponents. This team goes as Wynn goes, especially against a quality opponent, and San Diego State is just that.

The receiving crew for the Utes has been downright disappointing the past few weeks. The separation they were getting earlier in the year has disappeared, affecting every aspect of the offense. As the leader of the group, Jereme Brooks needs to step up and have a big game with his patented slant route over the middle. If he can break a long one, that should help Wynn's confidence immensely. The deep play abilites of Devonte Christopher, Reggie Dunn, and Shaky Smithson have been ignored the past few weeks. Expect a few more deep balls this week, even against the 3-3-5 defense that SDSU is going to throw at the Utes.

How much more does Matt Asiata need to do to prove that he is the team's best back? Eddie Wide is a good player, but Asiata is special and should be getting 20+ carries per game. He's a captain and one of the leaders. With the offense slumping, he needs to go to the coaches and tell them to give him the ball every chance they get.

Defensive coordinator Rocky Long is going to use a 3-3-5 against the Utes this week. Utah has had trouble each of the last three weeks with either 3-4 or 3-3-5 defenses, while they breezed through their first seven games against more traditional 4-3 defenses.

Linebacker Miles Burris is the star of the defense and will be all over the field. He's a very instinctive player who is on every tackler and a real football player. The loss of cornerback Jose Perez this week could be huge for Aztecs as Josh Wade steps into his place. Wynn could try to throw Wade's way often to test the less experienced corner.

Advantage: Utah

When San Diego State Has the Ball

The San Diego State offense is one of the best in the conference with very good players at the skill positions. Averaging over 420 yards a game and almost 34 points a game, they don't have any real weaknesses.

Ryan Lindley is a stud. He's got NFL size, and NFL arm, and is an elite quarterback. A big play gunslinger, he's a high risk, high reward quarterback who throws interceptions, but offsets those with a lot of big plays. With his penchant for taking seven step drops, the Utah defensive ends may have a good chance at getting to him and grabbing a few sacks.

The receiving duo of DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown is the best in the conference. Both are big play guys with almost 1,000 yards receiving yards each, and 19+ yards per catch. Brand Burton, Lamar Chapman, and Conroy Black are going to have their hands full shutting down these two. The help they get from safeiteis Brian Blechen and Justin Taplin-Ross is going to be key. Both were burned for touchdowns last week against Notre Dame and need to be at the top of their game with SDSU's propensity to go deep often.

In the backfield the Aztecs have the Mountain West's leading rusher in Ronnie Hillman. The true freshman has bee unbelievable in his first year showing great speed, agility, and power for someone his size. He's broken multiple long runs on the year, including a 93 yarder against Missouri when he ran for 235 on the day. Throw in a four touchdown day against New Mexico State and he's the real deal and arguably the best running back the Aztecs have had since Marshal Faulk (although Lynell Hamilton was pretty good early in career before being setback by injuries).

The offensive line is fairly experienced and stout. The leader is center Trask Iosefa, who's been starter since his freshman year while left tackle Tommy Draheim is a good one as well. The group as a whole is better in the passing game, having allowed only a handful on the year, but are still pretty good opening holes for Hillman.

The Utah defense has not been very opportunistic the past few weeks, unable to force turnovers are make any big plays. Outside of the play of Sealver Siliga, the defensive line has not been very good, while the linebackers are looking small and undermanned the past couple of games. A healthy Chad Manis this week should be a huge boost as his absence has been much bigger than anticipated.

The safeties for Utah might be the most important players on the field for Utah. Having the neutralize and shut down the deep threat of SDSU is going to be a big key to the game.

Advantage: Even

Special Teams

I wouldn't have said this a month ago, but SDSU now has a big edge in the punting game. Sean Sellwood has been downright awful the past few weeks with short kicks time and time again, while Aztec punter Brian Stahovich is one of the best in the country. He has a huge leg, averaging over 45 yards per punt, including an 89 yarder.

Both kickers are solid with Joe Phillips only having missed one field goal on the year and Abel Perez having made 15 of 20. Perez has been poor from long range though only making one of four attempts.

The Utes are going to get the edge in the return game with Shaky Smithson and Reggie Dunn. Neither has been able to do anything for the past month returning kicks. With Stahovich's big leg, he could outkick his coverage at some point, setting Shaky up for a nice return. The Utes have lost the starting field position battle each of the last two games and getting Shaky to set them up with a long return is the easiest way to put points on the board for a struggling offense.

Advantage: Even

Coaching

Brady Hoke is a wonderful coach. He led Ball State to an undefeated regular season back in 2008 and has turned around a San Diego State program that was one of the worst in college football in just two years. He's implanted a new culture into the Aztec program and has them bound for a bowl for the first time in years. He may not be long for this job and on to a bigger program soon.

Offensie coordinator Al Borges has done a great job of tapping into the physical tools of Ryan Lindley and making him an elite quarterback. He's been around for years and has had great success in the past as the offensive coordinator of the great UCLA teams of the last 90s and the undefeated 2004 Auburn Tigers.

Rocky Long is one of the best in the business on the defensive side of the ball. The former New Mexico coach brings his 3-3-5 defense that has given opposing offense's fits all year with it's multiple looks and constant pre-snap movement by the players. Their aren't many defensive minds out there that are better than Long.

Kyle Whittingham is still one of the best head coaches in the country, but the perception of him nationally has taken a hit with the last two games. How he motivastes and prepares his team this week could go a long way towards determining his legacy with the Utes.

The Utah coaches have had a rough go of it lately, especially offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. Whether teams are catching up with his play calling is a possibility, but the lack of execution by the players is also to blame for the offense's struggles. Until he opens up the playbook a little more, brings more diversity, and gives Matt Asiata the bulk of the carries, the offense will continue to struggle.

Kalani Sitake is going to have his hands full this week with the San Diego State versatility and big play ability. He's very creative and makes great adjustments as the game goes on. Limiting the big play will be the most important thing for him ths week.

Advantage: Even

Intangibles San Diego State is undefeated at home this year. The Utes have only one road loss in 2010 (last week to Notre Dame), but outside of the Iowa State game, haven't been tremendous away from Rice-Eccles Stadium with less than stellar performances against Wyoming and Air Force.

Utah is coming off back to back demoralizing losses against TCU and Notre Dame. Where they are mentally as team is hard to know. SDSU is either going to be dejected by their tough loss at TCU, or riding a wave of confidence knowing that they can play with pretty much anyone in the country.

The Utes have won the last four games against the Aztecs, including a 38-7 victory last year in Salt Lake City.

Advantage: San Diego State

Prediction

This is one of the most important games in the history of Utah football. It's almost as important as the 2004 Fiesta Bowl, the 2008 TCU game, the 2008 Sugar Bowl, and this year's TCU game. I know that seems like a stretch to compare this battle for second place in the Mountain West to games with BCS and national championship implications, but in terms of the future of the Utah program, as the move into the Pac 12 next year, this is huge for a few reasons:
Perception. zTwo weeks ago the Utes were regarded as national power. A consistent program led by one of the best coaches in the country.
Recruiting. Moving into the Pac 12, Utah is going to have access to a new level of recruit. High profile players don't want to play for teams that fall apart at the first side of adversity. Parents don't want to send their kids to play for a coach that lets his team quit and fall apart after a disappointing loss.
Most importantly, Jordan Wynn. Wynn has to have this. He needs it. The future of him as the quarterback of this program is going to ride heavily on his performance against San Diego. If he struggles, Kyle Whittingham will go to Terrance Cain. He can't afford to let Wynn ‘learn' anymore at this point through his struggles. Wins are too important at this point.

Quick start. The Utes are going to need it. After last week's heartbreaker against TCU, the Aztecs are primed for a letdown to open the game. Utah will come out running the ball heavily with Matt Asiata before Wynn lets one fly to Shaky Smithson for a long touchdown giving the Utes a lead that they don't relinquish. A heavy dose of the running game helps the Utes control the clock throughout, winning the time of possession battle by 15 minutes as Matt Asiata carries the ball 25+ times for over 100 yards. Jordan Wynn gets back on track with a solid game, throwing for over 200 yards with 2 touchdowns and more importantly, no interceptions while completing 70% of his passes.

SDSU's too good offensively to be held down throughout the game and put a couple of late touchdowns on the board making it look closer than it really is, but three turnovers are too much for them to overcome. The Utes lock up second place in the conference, a trip to Las Vegas for a bowl game, and more importantly, tons of confidence heading into their season finale with BYU.

Utah 34 San Diego State 24


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