McGhee was the 2010 co-offensive player of the year in the Big Sky while leading the league in passer efficiency and passing yards and he was in the top 10 nationally in both categories as well. With a year of experience in Montana's State high scoring offense McGhee has the chance to be the best passer in all of FCS
Also, look for Montana State to challenge Utah's secondary which does have question marks going in to the season. Everyone is waiting to see if Jordan Wynn has fully recovered from having shoulder surgery on his throwing arm. Wynn has had plenty of time to heal since his surgery was nine months ago and so he should be at full strength and have no issues making all the throws he made as a freshman and prior to his injury from last year. Wynn has the talent and should be the best quarterback on the field, but until he makes those first few throws we really do not know.
Both teams come in with little experience at the running back spot. Montan State's Kirk came on strong during this past spring to win the starting job over Nebraska transfer Tray Robinson and senior C J Palmer. Last season Kirk amassed 142 yards and is a straight ahead back that will attack the opposing defenses head on. Kirk is described by his coaches as being faster and stronger then he was last year at this time. While Kirk is the primary back, Robinson is expected to see a good amount of carries as the backup. Whoever is running the ball will have difficulty getting too much yardage against the Ute front seven.
For Utah, John White ended up beating out everyone for the starting job as he separated himself during fall camp. White came from the junior college ranks, but he was impressive during spring and fall camp with his speed and ability to slip through defenders for big gains. Tauni Vakapuna came out and secured the backup spot and is expected to be in the rotation along with White. Vakapuna played sparingly last year in four games mostly in mop up duty against New Mexico and San Jose State. He must have shown something in fall camp to surpass true freshman Harvey Langi who was expected to compete for the starting spot but now Langi is buried on the depth chart and may redshirt.
Montana State does not use a fullback as they utilize three wide receiver sets, and the Utes fullback spot is not the traditional fullback position. Luke Matthews will line up as a second running back, out at wide receiver and in the tight end spot. Matthews is a good pass catcher and will be used in that capacity in the Utah's fullback position.
DeVonte Christopher will be the best receiver on the field Thursday night and Utah's go to receiver. Last year was Christopher led the Utes in receiving yards and is expected to do so in 2011. Dunn and Anderson are lacking in experience, but they did show some promise during spring and fall camp. Look for Reggie Dunn to step up as the starter opposite of Christopher. Montana State passes the ball a lot in their offense and return two of the top three wide receivers from last year in Elvis Akpla and Everett Gilbert. Tanner Blesking was a key reserve with three touchdowns in 2010.
Akpla had 43 receptions, 682 yards and four touchdowns in 2010 and Gilbert had 48 receptions for 574 yards and two touchdowns. The experience Montana State has at the receiver spot is something they will use to try to take advantage of Utah's inexperienced secondary. These three will start for Montana State, but look for them to have as many as seven wide receivers see the field in their pass happy offense.
Advantage: Montana State
Tevita Stevens vs. Shaun Sampson
Sampson is a first time starter on the offensive line and won the starting center job during spring practice. He is a redshirt junior and played some at center as a backup last year and he is undersized at 6-feet and 270 pounds. Stevens is more experienced as he started for two years at right guard, but this is his first year playing center. The coaches feel that Stevens is better at center then he was at guard.
John Cullen vs. Conrad Burbank
Burbank is a fifth-year senior and a three-year starter on the offensive line. He's moving from guard to left tackle and is the anchor on the line. Cullen is a two-year starter and is a good blocker in the running game but he can struggle some in pass protection when there is an elite speed pass rusher, but against Montanta State that should not be an issue.
Davis is another fifth-year and multi-year starter for Montana State on the offensive line. Davis is also considered to be an All-American candidate. Bergstrom was an All-Mountain West performer last year and will be in the running to be named a Pac-12 all-conference tackle. Begrstrom is a workhorse for Utah as he has played the most games along the offensive line over the past two years.
Vyncent Jones vs. Casey Dennehy
Jones went into fall camp as the backup center and came out as the starting left guard. He is the most inexperienced lineman Utah has starting for them, but he has been in the program since the spring of 2009 since he graduated high school early. Going up against Montana State should be a good way for Jones to ease in before the USC game next week. Dennehy is yet another experienced yet undersized returning offensive lineman for Montana State. Even though undersized, Dennehy has been able to provide good protection in the passing game and open up holes in the running game, his experience is what sets him apart when going up against better athletes on the defensive line.
Sam Brenner vs. Alex Terrien
Terrien was moved from being the starting center in 2010 to the starting guard position. Same applies to him as compared to the other Montana State lineman as they are long on experience yet not as big. Terrien is rangy, athletic and is versatile as he is also the backup center. Brenner is a first time starter for the Utes, but he was the teams top backup in 2010 and saw action in 11 games. He has the size at 6-feet and 300 pounds to be a force against the Montana State defensive line..
Assuming Lotulelei lives up to the hype he earned during spring camp he will be a disruptive force on the defensive line. His emergence came late in 2010 where he took over a starting tackle spot and all signs point to him being a dominant force. Aiono is a first time starter after spending 2010 in a reserve role. The time is now for Aiono to live up to the hype where he was the top rated junior college prospect in 2008. Aiona has the potential -- and showed that talent at the JUCO level -- so we do not know exactly how he will produce as a first time starter. Minter can get into the backfield and stuff plays before they begin. In 2010 he had 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and he has quick hands by having two interceptions and knocked down eight pass attempts. The scary part is that keeping Minter permanently at the tackle spot the coaches feel he can make more plays. Keli'i plays nose tackle and is going to be asked to take up space and occupy either the guards or centers to allow other defenders to get to the backfield.
Laidet is the only returning defensive lineman starter, but coaches and opponents know what they are getting from him. He has a solid pass rusher as he had six tackles for loss and two sacks in 2010 and he relies on his speed since his 255-pound frame and can not match up head on tackles or tight ends. Kruger is getting his first nod as a starter, but he has the pedigree to be an exceptional end, and it really helps being 6-feet-7-inches tall making it a challenge for offensive lineman to slow him down. Shelby is an experienced player with 27 career starts and should be able to ovepower his way against the Montana State offensive lineman. Shelby also has the ability to get in the backfield and stop plays before they can get any momentum.
Caleb Schreibeis Roger Trammell and Michael Foster vs. Brian Blechen, Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez
The Montana State linebacker unit is young and lacks experience with Foster being a redshirt freshman, Trammell is a senior but this will be his first time being a starter and the only multi-year starter is Schreibeis. While Schreibeis is experienced he is moving from defensive line to linebacker, so he will have an adjustment period this season.
The Utah linebacker position is strong with Walker having 113 tackles and Martinez had 91 last year and were named all-conference players in the Mountain West. These two are expected to have great seasons and against Montana State, should be able to rack up a ton of tackles. Blechen gets his first start at linebacker after moving from safety where he was an All-American. Blechen was known for his big hits and big play ability. Judging by spring and fall camp, the transition should smooth against Montana State.
Bethley is a brand new starter at the safety position and Fuller played sparingly last year with only one pass defended. The coaching staff says that the secondary has upside, but in a game against the Utes, they'll need established players which is not what Montana State has.
Utah is starting two players who lack FBS experience in true freshman Eric Rowe and JC transfer Keith McGill. Rowe was a highly sought after recruit from Texas and has blazing speed, but his inexperience might show against the Montana State passing game. McGill was a first-team JUCO All-American and earned multiple defensive honors. He could end up being the best player in the secondary for the Utes.
Sophomore Gords saw action last season when Montana State brought on an extra defensive back and recorded 22 tackles. Now he is expected line up against opposing teams number two wide receiver. Gords will rely on his speed to cover the wide receivers since he stands at 5-feet-10-inches tall. Jones brings the experience to the Bobcat secondary and is always around the ball with 11 defended passes last season. His ability to cover is what sets him apart from other corners, and if Jones could hold onto some of those knock downs he could be dangerous. Lacy is extremely fast which allows him to have closing speed if receivers get open -- which they have been known to at times against the diminutive corner. He is athletic enough to make plays but he needs to work on his covering skills. Black moves up from being the third corner in 2010 to a starter in 2011. He will be in charge of matching up with Montana State's top receiver which will not be an easy task. Black's big asset is his speed, but he also needs to become a better cover corner and especially against wide open passing attacks that Utah will face this week.
Montana State's Perez was eight out of nine and averaged 38 yards per punt during the 2010 season and a long of 47. Sellwood was slightly better at 41 yards per punt last season.
Nick Marsh or Coleman Peterson vs. Jason Cunningham
Cunningham was the top place kicker in the Big Sky by going 20-of-24 in field goal attempts and 42-of-48 on extra points and is a FCS All-American candidate. This is Marsh's first year as the field goal kicker. Last year he was the kickoff specialist and had a 25 percent touchback rate on kickoffs. Peterson has not seen the field for the Ute yet. Both struggled mightily in the spring and fall.
Advantage: Montana State
Reggie Dunn, Rayn Lacy and Griff McNabb vs. David Dash
Dash is an unknown sophomore who is yet to return any kicks. He was named the starting kick and punt returner during spring practice. On the Utah side, McNabb handled only five total returns while Lacy is getting his first action as a kick returner while Reggie Dunn was electric in 2010, taking one kick back to the house.