Game Matchups: Utah vs Utah State

Taking a look at each matchup for Friday night and determining who has the edge

By Andrew Gorringe

Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs Utah State Secondary

Who was that guy that was impersonating Travis Wilson on the field vs Michigan? Whoever he was, he was a pretty dang good QB. All kidding aside, Travis Wilson turned in one of his best performances as a Ute, as he looked as poised and confident as he ever has. He was quick with his decisions and also provided a big boost to the run game with his option keepers and scrambling. We said before the season started that the recipe for a successful season started with an efficient Travis Wilson, and that’s exactly what he was in week 1 against a very good defense. Now he just needs to show that he can perform that way consistently. At receiver, the big surprise was the play of true freshman Britain Covey. Covey routinely lined up across from arguably the most talented safety/nickel back in the country, and bested him a couple times with his quickness. Oh, Covey also has tremendous hands. Kenneth Scott was held in check against Michigan, but will be a primary target going forward. Once again, we’re waiting on the health status of Tim Patrick, as he suited up for week 1, but did not play. An appearance vs the Aggies wouldn’t be too big of a surprise, and Patrick would add some much needed experience and talent to the group. Bubba Poole and Tyrone Smith were the other receivers to catch some passes on week 1, and Poole looked very dangerous in the slot. It won’t be long before he breaks one off for a long gain/TD.

If there’s a group that can be exposed on the very stout Aggie defense, it’s the secondary. Although they held SUU to just 111 yards through the air in week 1, they did struggle in 2014 when facing a team that had good QB play, much like they’ll face against Utah, and they also are replacing their two best secondary starters from 2014 in Brian Suite and Frankie Sutera. Jalen Davis is the most accomplished returning starter, as he had 2 INT’s and 60 tackles in 2014, and he’ll line up at cornerback. Opposite of Davis will be Deshan Hines, who also had 2 INT’s and 20 tackles in 2014. At safety will be Marwin Evans, 10 tackles in 2014, and Devin Centers, 74 tackles and 1 INT in 2014. Overall, this is a solid group that tackles well and is good in run support, but they lack size and elite athleticism to shut down bigger, faster receivers.

Edge:  Utah

Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Utah State Linebackers

Facing a very stout Michigan front 7, Devontae Booker was held in check most of the night on the ground, , but did most of his damage in the passing game as he finished with 55 yards receiving. Most of Booker’s struggles can be attributed to below average run blocking from the Ute offensive line, as when there were holes; Booker looked like his usual self, gaining 7-10 yards a carry. The casual observer will look at his numbers from week 1 and say he had a poor game, but as always, there’s more to the story. One of the more refreshing components of the week 1 win for Utah was the play of their tight end group. Although they lost co-starter Evan Moeai to a season ending lower leg injury, Siale Fakailoatonga and Harrison Handley looked very solid in the receiving game, as they both had 2 catches for 17 yards and 25 yards respectively. Handley is a great receiving tight end and Fakailoatonga is the better run blocker. There will be a steady rotation between these two players, but they should be more than adequate for the rest of the season.

It’s not hard to figure out the best position group on the field for the Aggies, as they sport a couple of future NFL players at both inside and outside linebacker. The Aggie use four linebackers in their 3-4 system, and junior Nick Vigel and senior Kyler Fackrell are the headliners of the group. Fackrell is coming off of a torn ACL in 2014, and had 2 sacks in his 2015 debut vs SUU. Vigil is the do it all player on the team, as he’ll also line up at running back at times, but led the team with 13 tackles in week 1. Vigil has the athleticism to make plays all over the field, while Fackrell is more a pass rush specialist, as he has 11 career sacks and 23.5 TFL’s off the edge. Also playing linebacker for the Aggies is former Ute LT Filiaga, and senior Torrey Green. Green has 41 career tackles, though he didn’t tally one during the game vs SUU, and did return a blocked extra point for 2 points for the Aggies. Most Ute fans are familiar with the play of Filiaga, and it’s really no different than his time at Utah. He’s stout up the middle, but lacks lateral speed and quickness. With Vigil and Fackrell in the lineup, this is a great position group, but they’ll still be going up against one of the best running backs in the country, and a pair of very solid tight ends.

Edge:  Even

Utah Offensive Line vs Utah State Defensive Line

It was a mixed bag for the Ute defensive line in week 1, as they only gave up one sack on the day, but failed to provide enough running lanes for Devontae Booker, which led to a subpar run game. Left tackle Sam Tevi especially struggled during the game, as he missed multiple blocks in the run game that led the tackles for losses. The rest of the line? Just average. The good news is that there is room to improve. We know this offensive line can be good, especially in the run game, but there will likely be some growing pains at left tackle for most of the season

In the Aggies base 3-4 defense, the best prospect on the defensive line is nose tackle David Moala. Moala is big player at 6’2-300lbs, but is also athletic enough to make plays in the backfield. The two defensive ends are Jordan Nielsen and Ricky Ali’ifua. Both have typical size for a 3-4 defense end, 6’5-275lbs and 6’2-285lbs, and do a good job at setting the edge and forcing the action back inside towards their terrific group of linebackers. There aren’t any real standouts in this group, but they are very well coaches and do a good job of maintaining their assignments.

Edge:  Even

Utah State Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs Utah Secondary

It’s been quite the fall from grace for Utah State QB Chuckie Keeton, as injuries have essentially derailed what was once a very impressive career. After back to back season ending injuries in 2013 and 2014, Keeton is a shell of his former self, but is still able to do damage to an opposing defense. Because of the injuries, Keeton is no longer the elite runner that he once was, but he still does a good job of evading pressure in the pocket and extending plays. Not only did he lose his ability to be an elite runner, but it also appears he’s lost the big play ability in the passing game he once had. Since his two major injuries, Keeton is only averaging 4.4 yards per pass attempt, and has a 2:5 TD/INT ratio in the 5 games he’s played in from the 2014 and 2015 season. While the numbers are below average at best, Keeton still has the mental tools to hurt a defense; it’s just a question of whether or not he can physically make all the plays that are needed. At wide receiver, the Aggies are replacing arguably their best playmaker from 2014 in JoJo Natson (dismissed from the team) and will also be without their leading returning receiver Hunter Sharp against the Utes, due to suspension. One name that Ute fans may be remember is Brandon Swindall, who caught a couple TD passes vs the Utes in 2013, as he is returning from a torn Achilles in 2014. Swindall didn’t play in the season opener, but there are indications that he will play vs Utah. It’ll be a question mark whether or not Swindall can be effective as he once was, but he is a big target with great hands. Filling out the rest of the WR group will be Devonte Robinson (24 catches for 226 yards & 2 TD’s in ’14), Andrew Rodriguez, who returned a punt for a TD vs SUU, and Braelon Roberts, another big target that had 4 catches for 25 yards in the season opener.

On paper, the Ute secondary was lights out vs the Wolverines, as they snagged 3 interceptions, including the game winning pick six by Justin Thomas, but to those that watched the game, there’s certainly improvements that must be made. The biggest thing that must be improved for this group is health, as multiple secondary starters struggled with cramps in the season opener, which forced them to miss valuable time during the game. Tevin Carter and Marcus Williams were good at safety, and Carter was borderline excellent in run support from his strong safety spot. At corner, it was a mixed bag. Nickel back Justin Thomas turned in a terrific game in both the run and pass game, but corners Cory Butler-Byrd and Reggie Porter struggled at times. Butler-Byrd nearly surrendered a TD as he let a WR run right by him on a coverage mix up, and Porter struggled with cramps and in run support, as he failed to shed blockers multiple times. The good news is that we saw that the talent is there. Another piece of good news? Dominique Hatfield is back. After being dismissed because of legal issues, which turned out to be wrongfully accused, Hatfield is back on the team. We don’t know if we’ll see Hatfield in action this week, but if he is thrust out there, he’ll provide even more talent and very valuable experience at the corner position.  There’s still some question marks, but this group should be much improved from week one.

Edge:  Even

Utah State Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Utah Linebackers

It’s a two running back offense for the Aggies, as they’ll split carries between Devante Mays and LaJuan Hunt for the most part. Hunt carried the ball 23 times for 80 yards against SUU, and has great speed at 5’8-195lbs. Mays is the bruiser of the two at 5’11-220lbs, and gained 51 yards on just 4 carries in the season opener. The Aggies use a lot of zone read and zone blocking schemes in the run game, and the two running backs complement each other nicely. At tight end, junior Wyatt Davis is the starter and is a very experienced player, as he has 28 catches for 315 yards and 4 TD’s in his career. Davis is more of a receiving tight end than a traditional blocking tight end, but has good size at 6’5-255lbs.

Aside from two costly personal foul calls, the top two linebackers for Utah in Jared Norris and Gionni Paul were lights out in week one. Paul was all over the field as he led the team with 14 tackles, and Norris was right behind him with 8 and a big PBU. They turned in the type of performance we expected of them, but could do without the personal foul penalties on Paul, which will almost for sure be cleaned up in week two. Jason Whittingham also saw a lot of playing time vs Michigan, but only finished with two tackles. That number could have been a lot higher, as he routinely found himself in the perfect position to make a tackle, but failed to wrap up the ball carrier 3 or 4 times. That will need to be cleaned up, or other linebackers will need to be given a shot.

Edge: Utah

Utah State Offensive Line vs Utah Defensive Line

The biggest area of concern for the Aggies in 2014 is the offensive line. With starter at left guard Tyshon Mosely suspended for the first two games of the year, the Aggie offensive line gave up an insane amount of pressure against an average at best defensive line from SUU. Playing in place of Mosely is Ben Wysocki, and the Aggies returned 3 other starters from 2014 in Austin Stephens, Taani Fisilau and Jake Simonich at center, right guard and right tackle respectively. Getting his first start at left tackle was Austin Albrecht. Not only did the offensive line as a group struggle to maintain a clean pocket, but they also generated very little push in the run game when you consider their opponent. They’ll be facing a much tougher challenge this week, and improvement will have to have been made in order to give the Aggies a chance at scoring points.

“Sack Lake City” was temporarily dried up last Thursday, as the Utes weren’t able to generate a single sack against the Michigan pass protection, which relied heavily on running backs and tight ends, often keeping seven blockers in the backfield. When you combine that with the fact that Utah blitzed very little, and it’s easy to see why no sacks were registered. That doesn’t mean that the defensive line wasn’t successful though, as the run defense was as good as ever, and may have turned in one of the best performances in the Whittingham era. Michigan was held to just 76 yards rushing on 29 carries, a measly 2.62 yard per carry. The defensive tackles were dominant on the interior, as Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi, Stevie Tuikolovatu and Viliseni Fauonuku routinely man handled the Michigan guards and center. The defensive ends were equally good in the run game for Utah, as Hunter Dimick got a TFL, and Jason Fanaika was stout at his defensive end spot. Kylie Fitts and Pita Taumoepenu saw more action as the game went on, and did some nice things to generate pressure in the backfield, but couldn’t get that elusive sack. Overall, this unit was outstanding in week one.

Edge:  Utah

Special Teams

It was an off night for the Utes elite special teamers, and place kicker Andy Phillips missed 2 of his 3 field goal attempts, and punter Tom Hackett had two below average punts by his standard, though he did eventually boom a career long 74 yarder, and also pinned one inside the five yard line that was incorrectly called a touchback on the field. Everybody in the stadium except that lone official knew that ball went out of bounds before crossing the goal line. The misses by Phillips were especially bad as neither were really even close to going in. We’ll chalk it up to first game jitters, but these two are still some of the best in the business. We also didn’t get to see much in the return game, as all Michigan kick offs were ruled as touchbacks, and Britain Covey only returned one punt for a gain of 14 yards.

Utah State was saved by the skin of their teeth in their home opener against the mighty Thunderbirds from Southern Utah, and that was thanks in large part to their special teams. Wide receiver Andrew Rodriguez returned a punt for a touchdown, which ended up being the Aggies lone touchdown of the game, and the defense blocked an extra point attempt that was returned for two points. Add in a 30 yard field goal from Brock Warren, and that led to the 3 point win. Aggie punter Aaron Dalton also punted 13(!) times for an average punt of 35.6 yards. The Utah State special teams are above average, but still aren’t at the level of Utah’s, despite the shaky first game.

Edge: Utah

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