Utah at Cal - Game Preview

The Utah Utes hit the road in search of their first conference victory.

Facts and Factors:
Utah (3-3, 0-3 Pac-12) returns to Pac-12 Conference play this Saturday, playing California (3-3, 0-3 Pac-12) in San Francisco.

Utah finished the non-conference portion of its schedule with a 3-0 record with last week's 26-14 win at Pitt.

Cal's home stadium is under renovation, and Saturday's game will be played at San Francisco's AT&T Park, the site of the 2005 Emerald Bowl where Utah defeated Georgia Tech (then known as SBC Park). Cal leads the all time series 4-3, though Utah has won two straight and three of the last four.

In their last matchup, Utah beat Cal 37-27 in the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl. Utah and Cal have played two common foes this season with both losing to USC and Washington. Utah lost 23-14 to USC and 31-14 to Washington, while Cal lost 30-9 to USC and 31-23 to Washington.

Senior defensive end Derrick Shelby was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week after leading Utah with seven tackles (6 solo), 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a fourth-quarter interception that he returned 21 yards for the game-clinching touchdown in Utah's 26-14 win at Pitt on Oct. 15. He also earned an ESPN helmet sticker. He becomes just the second Ute ever to win a Walter Camp weekly national award, joining Eric Weddle, who won one on Sept. 24, 2006 (vs. San Diego State).

When Utah has the ball:
Utah's offense enters Saturday's matchup in need of a breakout performance. In 10 quarters of football (with Hays as QB), Utah's offense has only produced 5 offensive touchdowns 10. On the season, the Utes are averaging 24.8 points per game (82nd in the nation). Through the air, Utah is averaging 201.5 yards per game (85th in nation), and on the ground, Utah is averaging 129.3 yards per game (83rd in nation). With Jon Hays under center, the Utes have taken a much more conservative identity.

On defense, the Cal Bears have proven to be stingy at times this season. Against non-Conference opponents, Cal is allowing just 16.5 points per game. Against PAC-12 opponents, Cal is allowing 34 points per game. Cal is coming off of three consecutive weeks of facing offensive juggernaut's and elite quarterbacks (at Washington, at Oregon, vs. USC).

Jon Hays is averaging 163 passing yards per game in starts for Utah, while completing 60% of his passes. Hays has thrown for 3 TDs on the season and 4 INTs. Last week against Pittsburgh, Hays showed great signs of improvement in game management, and also took better care of the ball. Still, Hays will need to make a concerted effort to take care of the ball on Saturday. One other factor to pay attention to is Hays' ability to read Cal's defense and react to different looks that he sees. Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow offered some criticism of Hays this week, saying that the signal caller needed to spend more time in the film room.

For the Utes, RB John White IV has been arguably the most valuable offensive player on the season up to this point. White currently ranks 16th among RBs in rushing yards per game. Prior to last week, White was seeing somewhere between 15-20 touches per game. On Saturday vs. Pitt, White had a whopping 38 touches. White is averaging 112 yards per game rushing (5.2 yards per carry).Ute Head Coach Kyle Whittingham expressed a desire to cut back on White's workload in coming weeks, suggesting the possibility of Tauni Vakapuna and Harvey Langi getting more opportunities.

At Wide Receiver, Utah played last week without WR Devonte Christopher, who not only leads the team in receiving yards (351), receptions (23), and yards per reception (15.3), but Christopher is arguably the most dangerous "big play threat" on Utah's offense. Christopher is questionable for Saturday's matchup. Regardless of Christopher's availability, freshmen Utes Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott will need to share more of the "big-play" responsibility. At Tight End, Dallin Rogers was injured last week and will miss the rest of the season. Rogers will be replaced in the lineup by Freshman TE Jake Murphy and Junior TE Kendrick Moeai.

On the Offensive Line, Utah is finally getting a chance to develop cohesiveness among a group that has been pieced together while recovering from injuries. Last week against Pitt, this group started to show serious signs of improvement. Offensive Tackle Tony Bergstrom is starting to return to form after missing some time with an injury. Opposite of Bergstrom is John Cullen, who has had a somewhat disappointing senior season to date as the starter at Left Tackle. Cullen had a very solid game against Pitt, but still needs to show better composure and discipline as penalties have limited the senior's effectiveness. The biggest question mark on Utah's Offensive Line at this point is at right guard. Miles Mason has occupied the position to date, while converted DT Latu Heimuli has continually shown progress, and last week split reps evenly with Mason. Four Utes had grades of 80% or higher vs Pitt. This unit has proven vulnerable against the blitz, giving up a season high 7 sacks vs Pitt.

Cal's defense is built around versatility. The Bears' DLine personifies this approach. Cal's starters on the DLine are Trevor Guyton, Ernest Owusu, and Aaron Tipito. All 3 are capable of moving around and playing different spots on the line. The unit combines for 8 TFLs on the season, and 4 sacks. Playing from a 3-4 scheme, Cal will use a variety of tactics to come after Jon Hays. Utah's ability to win matchups vs. this group will be critical on Saturday.

At linebacker, the Bears will lean on Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt to slow down Utah's running game. The duo have combined for 95 tackles on the season, and are among the best tacklers in the PAC-12. Despite the high tackling numbers, Cal has proven vulnerable against the rush. Cal is allowing 132 yards per game in rushing. Cecil Whiteside will rotate in at linebacker and provide some pass rush ability from the linebacker position. Whiteside ranks second on the team in sacks with 2 on the season.

In the secondary, the Utes believe they will be able to test Cal. Starting at Cornerback for Cal will be sophomore Steve Williams and freshman Stefan McClure. This will be the second career start for the highly touted McClure. Williams has really been solid for the Bears this season. Williams has 6 pass break-ups on the season and an interception. Sean Cathouse and D.J. Campbell are provide experience and skill to the Bears defense. Cathouse has 7 career interceptions and the duo will need to support Cal's young CBs in shutting down Utah's pass game.

When Cal has the ball:
Cal enters Saturday's matchup with an offensive reputation that doesn't instill fear into opponents. Through the air, Cal has shown flashes of being dangerous, ranking 15th in the nation with an average of 299 yards per game. Cal is a run heavy offense, and will run the ball nearly twice as often as they pass. Despite the rush-heavy offense, Cal ranks just 71st in the nation in total rushing yards per game (137.2).

On defense, Utah brings one of the conference's best defenses to the Bay area. Against the Run, Utah has been exceptionally strong to date. Utah's defense ranks 25th in the nation in total defense, and 13th in rush defense. Against the pass, Utah has been more vulnerable…especially in Conference.

Zach Maynard remains the starter for Cal, and has been trending in the wrong direction for the Bears. Maynard is completing just 52% of his passes on the season, but is averaging 264 yards per game passing. Maynard has thrown 11 TD passes and 6 INTs this season. Those numbers are slightly skewed by last week's disastrous performance against USC where Maynard threw 3 INTs without a touchdown pass. Cal's offense will go as Maynard goes on Saturday.

At Running Back, Salt Lake City product Isi Sofele has been solid for Cal this season. Sofele is rushing for 90.5 yards per game (over 5 per carry), and has proven to be elusive and difficult to tackle. Sofele is a slasher, and will get the bulk of the carries for Cal. Sofele is at his best on the outside where he can utilize his good speed, and will test Utah's Linebackers on the edges.

Sopohomore Keenan Allen is among the best Wide Receivers in the PAC-12, and the nation. The 6'3, 205 pound WR leads the nation with 828 receiving yards on the season (138 per game). Allen also leads Cal in receptions (52), touchdowns (4) and yards per reception (15.9). Utah's ability to limit Allen will go a long ways in determining the outcome of Saturday's matchup. Opposite of Allen is Marvin Jones. Jones is also a dangerous receiving option for Cal, gaining 530 receiving yards on the season (88 per game). Utah's defense has faired respectable against elite WRs this season, but have never faced a duo as explosive as Allen and Jones.

On the Offensive Line, Cal brings loads of experience to the field with 113 career starts across the line. As a unit, Cal has given up just 11 sacks on the year (less than 2 per game). Left Tackle Mitchell Schwartz is the best player on the Cal Offensive Line, and one of the better tackles in the country. Both Cal Guards are excellent players, Brian Schwenke and Justin Cheadle will aggressively pave the way for Sofele and crew. For fans of line play, the matchup of Schwenke and Cheadle vs. Star Lotulelei and Dave Kruger will be a fun one to watch.

The Utah defensive line is starting to form an identity. Defensive End Derrick Shelby has earned praise from coaches, and last week won the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week award. Shelby has emerged as the premiere defensive end that Utah had hoped Joe Kruger would become. Shelby has 3.5 sacks on the year, and leads the team with 5 pass break-ups. With Star Lotulelei holding down the middle of the defensive line as a disruptive force, the Utes are thrilled with their defensive line situation.

At linebacker, Utah has undergone a bit of a facelift. The extremely productive Trevor Reilly has made the move back from Defensive End to Linebacker (at least part-time). Reilly has 8 tackles for loss this season (75 yards), 4 forced fumbles, and 4 sacks. Alongside Reilly, Chaz Walker is among the conference leaders in tackles with 50 on the season. Senior Matt Martinez rounds out the starters, and has had a productive season with 25 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and 2 sacks. Boo Anderson will also see time with this group.

In the secondary, Utah has relied on senior CB Conroy Black to lead the group. Black continues to draw the assignment of defending the most talented WRs on opposing teams. Black has been solid for the Utes. Opposite of Black, Utah has started Ryan Lacy. Lacy is a bit undersized, but has great speed to stay with receivers. Lacy leads the ute secondary with 29 tackles, 1 sack, and 4 pass break-ups. Junior Mo Lee has made the move over from WR to CB, and has seen more and more playing time each week. Last week, Lee was on the field most of the game opposite of Black. At safety, true freshman Eric Rowe continues to improve each week, and ranks 4th on the team in tackles with 32. Rowe has broken up 3 passes on the season. Brian Blechen returned to Strong Safety after starting the season at linebacker. Against Pitt, Blechen's familiarity and reliability at Strong Safety was a welcome site to a Ute defense that has cycled players through the lineup. Blechen ranks second on the team with 39 tackles on the season, including 2 interceptions, 2.5 TFLs and a sack.

Special Teams:
Special Teams will once again play an important role in the outcome of Saturday's game. Neither team can afford to give up points on special teams, whether it be by a long return, a blocked punt/kick, or missed field goals.

Cal returns Giorgio Tavecchio who has kicked well this season. The strong legged kicker has made 9 of 10 kicks this season. At punter, Bryan Anger has been great for the Bears, punting for an average of 44 yards per punt. For Utah, kicker Coleman Peterson is coming off of a career performance at Pittsburgh where he went 4/4 on FGs in very windy conditions. Utah fans hope that Peterson's confidence will carry over into this week's matchup. Peterson is now 8 of 10 on the season. At punter, Utah seems more comfortable with Nick Marsh at this point, though Sean Sellwood may also see some time. Marsh has been decent at times for the Utes, but Utah's special teams have been susceptible against the punt block (and FG block for that matter).

In the return game, Utah will put Griff McNabb deep to return punts. McNabb's job is seemingly simple, catch the ball. McNabb is averaging just 2 yards per return with a long of 8. On kickoffs, Utah will use the dangerous Reggie Dunn, the speedy Ryan Lacy, and a newcomer Chandler Johnson. Utah's returners are capable and dangerous, but the blocking on returns has failed to impress this year, likely due to the increased size and speed Utah is facing in conference play.

For Cal, Marvin Jones has been electric in returning punts. Jones is averaging 10.2 yards per return, with a long of 37. If Jones comes near his average on Saturday, Nick Marsh's punting average of 40 yards per punt will turn into just 30 net yards per punt…which could be a HUGE swing in field position and momentum. On kickoffs, Cal will put Coleman Edmond and Brendan Bigelow back deep.

The injuries are stacking up now for Utah. Starters Jordan Wynn (QB), Dallin Rogers (TE) and reserves Charles Henderson (WR/PR) and Keith McGill (S) will be out for the remainder of the season. WR DeVonte Christopher is questionable, Tauni Vakapuna (RB), and Jacoby Hale (LB).

Weather forecasts for Saturday predict beautiful weather with a high of 79 degrees, a low of 59 degrees, clear skies with a chance of earthquakes.

Utah faces a heavier travel burden this week, as the Utes are coming off of an east coast road trip at Pittsburgh, and now travel to the west coast to take on Cal. Cal is coming off of a home game, and should have an advantage based solely on the fact that travel will not be an issue for Cal.

Utah 17, Cal 20

Expect a dogfight on Saturday between two evenly matched teams. Both teams have concerns and issues on offense, but Cal has big playmakers at WR that may be the difference. On Special Teams, Cal also holds an advantage with players capable of changing the momentum of the game. Ultimately, Utah's young offense likely will not put up the points necessary to defeat a good Cal team on the road.

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