Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs Fresno State Defensive Backs
Travis Wilson did everything he needed to do in Utah's opener against Idaho State. He protected the ball with zero turnovers, ran the ball effectively when the opportunity presented itself with 4 rushes for 12 yards with the TD, and he passed the ball extremely well going for 13-18 for 265 yards with one passing TD. He was impressive with his ability to distribute the ball to multiple receivers including several very difficult passes on the run to Westlee Tonga in order to move the chains.
Wilson is working with perhaps Utah's most talented and diverse receiving group ever and they can exploit their opponents in a variety of ways. With weapons like deep balls to Dres, possession receptions from Scott and Tonga and slant work from both Dres and Kaelin Clay, Wilson has a ton of options including a wicked swing pass attack with running backs Poole and Booker. For Wilson it comes down to protecting the ball, distributing it to his playmakers and allowing them to do the rest.
Fresno States does have one of the best safeties in the business with Derron Smith (14 career picks), but the rest of the second isn't as strong as what Smith brings to the table. Former Arizona CB Bryan Harper got his first start for FSU last week after sitting out last season. He had 7 tackles against the Trojans, but as a secondary, they were absolutely torched by USC who passed for over 400 yards and 4 touchdowns. You'll likely see some improvement from Fresno's secondary against Utah, but Utah's receivers will prove to be too much especially the way Dres Anderson has been playing as a captain and leader of this team. Look for another big game from Dres this week.
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Fresno State Linebackers
Like Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham recently said in his weekly press conference, Fresno State isn’t nearly as bad as their season opening performance vs. USC may have indicated. That said, I like the weapons the Utes have on the offensive side of the ball, especially at running back. The Utes tout two running backs to handle the majority of the load – Bubba Poole, an all around back that has good hands out of the backfield, and Devontae Booker, an athletic power back that isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder and fight for extra yards, and also has solid field vision that could come in handy when the Utes are looking for a big play out of their running attack. And who is this Westlee Tonga guy that is playing at tight end for the Utes? Five catches for 61 yards on opening night for the senior gives the impression that Tonga and the rest of the tight ends will be a featured part of the offense going forward, especially if the Utes continue to work with the 1-2 read quick passing attack.
Fresno State returns all four of its starting linebackers from last season’s team that won the Mountain West championship, but as a team they surrendered 6.0 yards per carry to USC lead back Javorius Allen. While I don’t see the Utes getting close to that mark, it isn’t that unrealistic to look for the Utes to hit the 4.5-5 yards per carry, especially with the way Booker and Poole played in the season opener. Junior middle linebacker Kyrie Wilson led the Bulldogs with 13 tackles against the Trojans, a new career-high, while also forcing a fumble. Senior outside linebacker Donavon Lewis added eight tackles and might have had the play of the day (at least for Fresno State) with a six-yard tackle for a loss that resulted in him forcing and recovering a fumble. For the Utes, they did lose the turnover battle with Idaho State as running back Troy McCormick recorded the game’s lone lost fumble, so turnovers could play an interesting role in this week’s matchup. Also, one thing Fresno State looks to get out of its linebackers is sacks, which the Bulldogs did not register one in the loss to USC. Fresno State and Stanford are the only schools in the FBS that have ranked in the top 10 nationally in sacks in each of the past two seasons.
Utah Offensive Line vs Fresno State Defensive Line
Utah's offensive line performance against Idaho State was a mixed bag, and they'll need to be better and more consistent against a Fresno State line that is bigger and more athletic that we saw out of ISU. Jeremiah Poutasi was, and is, the best of the bunch at left tackle. He'll have a tough matchup going against a mix of a solid front 3 and some athletic outside linebackers that he's ultimately going to matched against. Junior Salt continues to show a lot of ability in the run game, but is a bit of a liability in pass protection. Same goes for Isaac Asiata at the other guard spot. JJ Dielman will really be tested for the first time at the right tackle spot while the Utes should have Siaosi Aiono return and take over at the center position.
Fresno didn't register a sack against a USC offensive line that was starting two freshmen. They run a 3 man front and are still trying to figure out who their starters are Tyeler Davison and Nathan Madsen battling for one end spot while Davison battles Maurice Poyadue at nose guard. Davison and Poyadue got the nod last week. There's a lot of beef up front to go along with some experience. At 309 pounds, Davison is one of the top defensive linemen in the country. He's a two time all MWC selection and is on multiple award watch lists. Todd Hunt will line up at defensive end as well, and is also coming off of his first career start against USC. Will they have trouble with a Utah offensive line that is as big as USC's?
Fresno State Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers vs Utah Defensive Backs
They may not have showed it against USC, but Fresno State has a legitimate offense with two very capable quarterbacks that will both likely see time. It's never easy taking over for a guy like Derek Carr, but they're trying with Brian Burrell, the dual threat that got the start against the Trojans. He accounted for 134 total yards with 42 of those coming on the ground in a struggle, but is still a solid QB. Brandon Connette is a transfer from Duke is is fairly comparable to Burrell. He too struggled against the Trojans amassing only 81 yards, but is a dangerous weapon with both his arm and legs.
What makes the quarterbacks for FSU dangerous? Their weapons at receiver. Josh Harper is one of the top pass catchers in the country with 22 career touchdowns catches on 144 catches. Senior Aaron Peck is a tough matchup at 6'3 and 213. Will Utah's corners be able to handle him physically? Lekendrick Williams as a transfer from Texas A&M that can absolutely fly, while Da'mari Scott caught his first two career balls last week. It all starts with Harper though, and Utah is going to have a tough time slowing him down.
To put it bluntly, Utah's corners were bad alst week. They should have dominated a week set of receivers from Idaho State and struggled in being physical and locking guys down. Dominique Hatfield's co-starting gig and move from receiver (which should be a full-time move shortly) will help as he was the best corner last week and has as much physical ability as anyone on the team that is healthy (oh Reggie Porter. Get well soon). Eric Rowe looks like his move from safety isn't goign to be as smooth as they had hoped while Wykie Freeman and Davion Orphey are borderline Pac 12 players. Getting Justin Thomas back out there will help at the nickle spot, but these corners are going to be tested Saturday and better be ready to go or Fresno State, spefically Josh Harper, will eat them up.
If they do struggle, Brian Blechen and Tevin Carter are going to be counted for a lot of support through the air. They did a solid job in run support last week, and my need to help spy the two mobile quarterbacks, but will be most valuable in keeping the receivers from taking the top off of the defense. If they can do that and make a few plays on the ball (interceptions, anyone?) Utah will be in a much better position to limit the Fresno air attack.
Advantage: Fresno State
Fresno State Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Utah Linebackers
Last week against USC the Bulldogs rushed for 157 yards on 33 attempts and 2 TDs. Marteze Waller did most of the damage with 16 of those 33 carries and 97 yards, and both rushing TDs. When you look deeper at the box score the pass/rush ratio is very interesting (36 passes and 33 rushes), especially considering the Bulldogs were playing from behind all game. FSU was bound and determined to establish the run to be able to open up the passing game, but the pressure by the defensive line and coverage by the USC secondary was too good and that never happened.
The longest pass play FSU completed against USC went for 14 yards and the Tight Ends caught zero passes. Not much action from this receiving group, and I don’t think that will change when Fresno State comes to Salt Lake this weekend. Utah needs to be able to replicate what USC did in the front seven and stop the run and control the tight ends in space, which they should be able to do.
The Utah LB group, once looked at as a big advantage for the Utes this year, is now a question mark only one week into the season. Losing Gionni Paul with a foot injury during the spring certainly didn’t help, but having Jason Whittingham, Jared Norris and an up-and-coming Uaea Masina ready to contribute, Paul’s injury should have went fairly unnoticed. The matchup this week must be better than last for Utah’s LB group if Utah wants to win this game. Last week the LBs were out of position, getting sucked up to the line of scrimmage and topped it off by getting called out by Coach Whittingham during his weekly press conference saying he was irked by their performance. I’m looking for the group to bounce back in a big way and make big plays for the defense.
Fresno State Offensive Line vs Utah Defensive Line
Fresno State doesn't have the biggest offensive line in the country with three players tipping the scales at 285 pounds or less. Right guard Cody Wichman is the biggest of the bunch at 315 pounds and is an all american candidate. He's started 37 games in his career and has a future on Sundays. The only newcomer to the group is JC transfer Sean Rubalcava who's slotted in at left guard. The Bulldogs are loaded with experience and excel in pass protection, giving up only 1 sack to the vaunted USC defense.
While Utah's interior wasn't up to snuff against Idaho State, the ends were tremendous with Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick spending their nights in the backfield. Orchard is going to scare opposing offenses to death and should give left tackle Alex Fifita plenty of trouble. Will the Utes be able to get any penetration inside? That could end up being one of the keys to the game. Lowell Lotulelei will certainly get more reps than last week when he was the Utes' best defensive tackle. Filipo Mokofisi, Seni Fauonuku, and Sese Ianu need to be more consistent.
Utah Special Teams vs Fresno State Special Teams
Utah showed last week why they think they have one of the top special teams units in the country with Tom Hacket dropping wedges inside the 5 yard line with ease, Andy Phillips bombing kickoffs through the end zone, and Kaelin Clay taking back two kicks for touchdowns. Your move Fresno.
Punter Garrett Swanson is a weapon for Fresno State coming off of a season in which he was 8th nationally in net punting. Kicker Colin McGuire was 11 of 16 last season with a long of 47 yards and is dependable. Da'mari Scott and Dontel James will handle return duties.
Game Matchups: Utah vs Fresno State
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