Facts and Factors:
Utah (0-0, 0-0 Pac-12) hosts Montana State (0-0, 0-0 Big Sky) in the season opener for both teams on Thursday, Sept. 1. Kickoff is 6 p.m. MDT in Rice-Eccles Stadium. The game will be televised on KJZZ TV (channel 14 and Comcast channel 3 in Salt Lake City). For those outside the viewing area, a free live video stream of the KJZZ telecast will be hosted on UtahUtes.com. Radio is ESPN700 AM (espn700sports.com).A sellout is anticipated for Thursday's game vs. MSU.
Utah is 31-0 all-time against current Big Sky Conference schools. The last time Utah played a Big Sky school (or an FCS school) was in 2008, when the Utes beat Weber State 37-21. Utah's only other game against an FCS school in this decade was Big Sky member Northern Arizona in 2006 (a 45-7 Utah win).
Senior OT Tony Bergstrom has been selected as one of 30 candidates for the 2011 Lowe's Senior CLASS Award. Bergstrom, a chemical engineering major, was named to the preseason watch list for the 2011 Outland Trophy.
Montana State is coming off of a 9-3 season, and carry the badge of 2010 Big Sky Conference Co-Champions. MSU earned a 4 seed in the Football Championship Subdivision 20 team playoffs, and were upset in the first round by North Dakota State. MSU is 1-9 over the past decade vs. Football Bowl Subdivision teams, with their most recent win coming over Colorado in 2006. In 2010, Montana State led Washington State by 15 points in the 4th quarter, but faltered down the stretch and lost 23-22 in Pullman.
When Utah has the ball:
Utah's offense takes the field after an up and down 2010 campaign in which the offense averaged 33 points per game, yet scored 7 points or less in 3 of their final 5 games. Utah will feature a new pro-style attack, and a new Offensive Coordinator in Norm Chow. Utah's offense returns 7 starters from 2011.
They'll face a Montana State defense that allowed 26 points per game in 2010, returns 6 starters, and is expected to live up to the program's reputation & tradition as a defensive power. MSU's defense is led by All-Conference nominee Junior DT Zach Minter (6'1, 285), Senior LB Clay Bignell (6'2, 240) and Junior LB Jody Owens (6'1, 221).
Junior QB Jordan Wynn enters his 3rd season as Utah's starter, and finally is playing in an offensive system that fits his strengths. In 2010, Wynn threw for 2334 yards (233 per), 17 TDs, and 10 INT, while completing 62% of his passes. Wynn should be able to surpass those numbers in 2011, and should get off to a big start on Thursday against a rebuilt, and undermanned Montana State secondary.
Utah will showcase a group of big, young, fast, and very talented receiving options for Wynn. The Utes will rotate a lot of WRs into the game, and will look to take advantage of a thin Bobcat secondary. Junior WR Devonte Christopher (6'1, 200) leads the group that includes redshirt freshmen Dres Anderson (6'1, 171), and Kenneth Scott (6'3, 205), juniors Reggie Dunn (5'10, 170), Luke Matthews (6'2, 206) Anthony Denham (6'4, 205), and Junior TE Kendrick Moeai (6'5, 260).
Montana State graduated 3 seniors in their secondary, including both Safeties and lacks the talent and depth to match up with Utah's receivers. Junior CB Darius Jones (5'10, 179) is the best player in the Bobcat secondary, and will try to limit DeVonte Christopher most of the game. Opposite Jones is Sophomore CB Sean Gords (5'10, 188), who will make his debut as a starting corner. Both CBs are backed up by true freshman who will also be on the field during nickel and dime packages. Utah's depth at WR should abuse Montana State all night as long as Jordan Wynn is given the time to find the open receiver.
At Running Back, Junior College transfer John White IV won the starting position during fall camp. The Utah coaching staff expects White to get about 15 touches in Thursday night's game. Tauni Vakapuna will back up White, and see significant time on the field vs. Montana State. The Bobcat defense allowed 153 rushing yards per game in 2010. MSU should be able to limit Utah's run game early, but will wear down as the game goes on. The Bobcat defensive front is known for their ability to shoot gaps and create matchup problems with their quickness. Linebacker Clay Bignell is the emotional leader of a solid linebacker group that will provide reliable second level run support.
On the Offensive Line, Utah saw a string of injuries through fall camp, but hope to be close to full strength by opening night. Offensive Tackles Tony Bergstrom (6'6, 315) and John Cullen (6'5, 300) have a HUGE size advantage over a Montana State defensive line that averages just 275 lbs per player. DT Zach Minter is known for making big plays. Minter earned 5 sacks in 2010, and scored 2 defensive touchdowns. Starting NT Christian Keli'i (6'0, 305) has been suspended for the Utah game and will not travel with the team. Replacing Keli'i in the starting lineup will be true Freshman Zach Logan (6'4, 295). Utah will likely lean on their OLine all night, wearing down Montana State's defensive line and linebackers. Utah will likely keep much of their playbook hidden in attempt to keep an advantage against USC in week 2.
ADVANTAGE = Utah
When opponent has the ball:
In 2010, Montana State carved a new reputation as an offensive juggernaut. The Bobcats averaged 33 points per game, and finished among the best in FCS in points scored, total yards per game, and passing yards per game.
Montana State's offense will have their hands full with a Utah defense that was stout in 2010, particularly against the run. Utah's defensive line is among the biggest in the PAC-12, and specializes in disrupting opponent backfields. With such a strong defensive line, Utah's experienced LBs should be free to fly to the ball and rack up tons of tackles. In the secondary, Utah doesn't return any starters, but has seemingly reloaded with speed and talent.
Montana State will feature QB Denarius McGhee (6'0, 213). McGhee is coming off of a hugely successful freshman season in which he earned Big Sky Offensive Co-Player of the Year honors. McGhee is a preseason FCS All-American candidate, and the preseason Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year. In 2010, McGhee threw for 264 yards per game, with 23 TDs.
Montana State has some uncertainty at Running Back. In 2010, RB Orenzo Davis ran for over 1200 yards, and was named 2nd team all-Big Sky. Davis was declared ineligible by the NCAA in January, was reinstated in February, and then ruled ineligible in March for academic reasons. Filling in for Davis will be sophomore Cody Kirk (5'10, 214). Kirk will split time with Nebraska transfer Trey Robinson (6'1, 221). Whoever ends up taking the majority of the Bobcat carries, they will have a very hard time getting anywhere against Utah's defensive front. Expect the Bobcats to average less than 3 yards per carry rushing.
At Wide Receiver, Montana State returns a lot of experience. Elvis Akpla (6'1, 190) is the leader of the group, and had nearly 700 yards receiving in 2010. Tanner Bleskin (6'3, 215) will start opposite of Akpla, and also saw heavy minutes last season. Perhaps the most explosive player of the group is Junior Everett Gilbert (5'9, 195). Gilbert is an exceptional all-around player, who averaged 109 total yards per game last season. Gilbert will also see time at Running Back and in the return game. The Bobcat WRs vs. Utah's secondary will be the best matchup of the night. Utah's defense features an entirely rebuilt secondary. Senior CB Conroy Black (6'0, 186) and Junior CB Ryan Lacy (5'10, 187) will have their hands full with this group, but Utah's new free safeties, Junior College transfer Keith McGill (6'3, 200), and Freshman Eric Rowe (6'1, 185) may be the key to preventing big plays from the Bobcat offense.
Montana State's Offensive Line is the biggest question mark of this team. Throughout fall camp, MSU's offensive line has struggled as a group. Three projected starters for 2011 are either injured or are not currently with the team. Senior OG Alex Terrien is the uncontested leader of this group, but changed positions from Center to Guard after earning 2nd team All-Conference honors in 2010. As a group, the Bobcat OLine averages just 287 pounds, and its biggest line member is just 300 pounds. In an attempt to protect QB DeNarius McGhee, MSU will use their TEs Shane Robison (6'5, 260) and Steven Foster (6'5, 260) to help contain the Utah pass rush. McGhee will roll outside as often as possible in a moving pocket, which actually fits McGhee's strengths best due to his height (McGhee is listed at 6'0, but is closer to 5'11). Utah's Defensive Line still should be able to produce constant pressure on McGhee without having to blitz too often.
ADVANTAGE = Utah
Throughout fall camp, the kicking game has been the only area of Utah's team that did not draw praise from the coaches at any point. With Thursday approaching, both Sophomore Nick Marsh and Junior Coleman Peterson may see action as Utah's place kicker against Montana State. Thankfully for the Utes, this game shouldn't come down to kicking, and should be a good opportunity for the duo to gain experience (and hopefully confidence) in a live game situation. Montana State returns the top kicker in the Big Sky in Jason Cunningham. The all-conference senior made 83% of his FGs in 2010.
At punter, Utah returns junior Sean Sellwood who has punted well throughout spring and fall. Sellwood needs to gain more consistency with his kicking, but still shows great potential for the Utes as a punter. Montana State returns their starting punter from 2010 in Rory Perez, who averaged 38 yards per punt in 2010 as a true freshman.
Utah's kick return game should once again be very solid. Junior speedster Reggie Dunn will be a big weapon on kickoffs. The ever-reliable Griff McNabb is expected to split time at punt returner true freshman Charles Henderson (5'9, 172). The Utes should have plenty of opportunities for punt returns, but 2 or 3 kickoff returns is all Utah should see on Thursday. Montana State is expected to put their most versatile WR Everett Gilbert back to return punts and kicks. Gilbert shared the duties last year, and as a team, the Bobcats averaged a comfortable 20 yards per kickoff return, and 6 yards per punt return.
ADVANTAGE = Montana State
The weather forecast for Thursday night shows a high of 89 degrees, with a low of 59. Skies should be mostly clear with no wind, creating what should be ideal football conditions.
Montana State will be without returning starting LB Aleksei Grosulak who was injured in spring and will miss the season. Junior NT Christian Keli'I has been suspended for the opener against Utah and will not travel with the team.
Unofficially for the Utes, Senior LT John Cullen is questionable (concussion) and WR Anthony Denham is doubtful (hamstring).
ADVANTAGE = Utah
Montana State could win a few games in the Mountain West Conference, but against Utah, the Bobcats are simply overmatched in an awful way. Thursday night, Utah's offense will surpass 450 yards of production in a balanced and methodical approach. John White for 75 yards and a TD, and the Utes as a team will rush for over 150 yards, with 3 TDs. Whittingham will show class and mercy by draining the clock throughout the second half. Jordan Wynn will pass for 225 yards with 2 TDs. On defense, the Utes will show that they are among the nation's best against the run. The Bobcats will gain less than 75 yards on the ground, but McGhee will end the night with big yardage against Utah's second and third string defense. Montana State will break a big play, but will otherwise be shut down. Utah's kickoff returners won't get much action, but thanks to a strong defensive effort, Griff McNabb will be put Utah in good field position all night.
Utah 38 Montana State 10
Utah vs Montana State - Game Preview
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