By Cody Harris
Utah Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers vs Fresno State Secondary
While Travis Wilson hasn’t been officially ruled out for Saturday’s matchup against the Bulldogs, it’s more than likely that we will see Kendal Thompson as the starter. The Bulldogs would probably prefer that too, just in case you may have forgotten that Travis Wilson threw for 5 touchdowns the last time these teams met. With Kendal as the likely starter we can expect to see his best game as a Ute (statistically that is) with his ability to run being front and center. Watch for ARod to execute a game plan tailored to Thompson’s strengths, which we know is his ability to run. But don’t be surprised if we see a new and hopefully improved side of Kendal’s game; a variety of simple throws to keep the defense honest. Just how deep those throws go will be the real question as the deep ball is far from a strength for Kendal. For the receivers you can expect a similar game plan to what we have already seen this year with the option read and dink and dunk short passes to the outside with the occasional deeper route across the middle. All Kendal has to do is get the ball into Britain Covey’s hands and let him do the rest. Covey is clearly dangerous in space, but something we saw against Utah State from Covey was his strength and tenacity. Catching 6 passes for 64 yards with at least 20 of those yards seemingly with an Aggie on his back, he just simply refused to go down. While Kenneth Scott continues to be somewhat of a let-down, he remains effective when targeted through good route running as well as drawing Pass Interference calls.
As for the Bulldogs DB’s, they did grab an interception which was returned for a touchdown (something they did 6 times last year), but they gave up 4 touchdowns to the Rebels, 3 of which went to just one receiver. A couple of names to look for in the secondary would be #2 CB Jamal Ellis (10 tackles, 4 pass break ups last week) and #4 FS Shannon Edwards (INT returned for TD). These guys aren’t elite by any stretch of the imagination, but they are scrappy and good enough to make a big play if given the opportunity.
Travis and Kendal combined for just 17 completions on 22 attempts last week, totaling just 132 yards and no touchdowns. In two games the Utes have yet to throw a touchdow. Is this on the QB’s, the WR’s or the game plan? With no real excuse it has got to change at some point and this week should be the week as Kendal and Covey will just be too quick and too smart for the Bulldog secondary.
Ute Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Fresno State Linebackers
Devontae Booker has been solid but not statistically spectacular this season, scoring 2 touchdowns in two games, powering through some very stout run defenses to do it. Booker earned those touchdowns against NFL caliber linebackers as well, with defensive game plans clearly centered on stopping him. Through 2 games Booker has carried the rock 53 times for 189 yards, while catching the ball (in spectacular fashion) 9 times for 70 yards. That is not going to change much against Fresno either, Booker will be the centerpiece of the Utes offensive attack and the Bulldogs know it. In order to alleviate some of the pressure on Booker, the Utes will continue to use their tight ends both as receivers and extra blockers. Between Handley and Fakailoatonga the Utes can be versatile in the way they use their TE’s. Handley’s strength is more as a reciveing TE, while Fakailoatonga’s strength is blocking, however he is really showing improvement in catching the ball. At 6’4 and 260, big #87 will likely be an easy target for Kendal to see and get the ball to.
As for the linebackers whose task it will be to slow down one of the best backs in the country, that responsibility will fall mainly on Mike Linebacker #17 Senior Kyrie Wilson. With the Bulldogs using an aggressive 3-4 scheme they seem to like to use their linebackers to really make the defense go. Through aggressive blitzing and filling gaps to help control the line of scrimmage they try to dictate where the offense can go on the field. Kyrie may even spy Booker for the majority of the game. This core of linebackers are thick in the middle and quick on the outside, which will make life just a little bit harder for Devontae and the Ute's tight ends. While the starting crew is relatively solid, it’s the bulldogs’ lack of depth that will hurt them against the Utes, as they are especially thin at this position.
Utah Offensive Line vs Fresno State Defensive Line.
Yes, the Utes are 2 and 0 with solid wins over bowl bound teams, but this offensive line for the Utes has got to get better. Travis Wilson has had time in the pocket for the most part, and the pass blocking in general has been okay. However, when it comes to run blocking, this line just can’t seem to get the same push they were able to last year. The loss of Poutasi to the NFL has clearly hurt this team, and they have yet to figure out a way to fill that void. The line also has a soft feel to them, they are very much lacking in the nastiness category which is so vital to solid offensive lineman. There is a lot of room for improvement, and the Utes have shown in past seasons that they tend to get better as the season goes along, but after 2 games it has been much of the same.
For the Bulldogs, the defensive line led by DE #90 Claudell Louis (6’5 295) is pretty stout and aggressive, registering 6 sacks in two games while holding teams to just 124.5 yards per game on the ground. Louis and his fellow Defensive linemen #96 Todd Hunt and #91 Nathan Madsen will rely on their quickness to try and get through the line to put pressure on Kendal and try to slow down Devontae. The number of sacks and solid rushing defense is a bit skewed because of their first game being against Abilene Christian.
The Utes should be able to push this line around quite a bit, similar to the way the Rebels of Ole Miss did.
Fresno State Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers vs Utes Secondary
To this point in the season the Bulldogs have use two Quarterbacks; #5 Freshman Chason Virgil and #17 Sophmore Zack Greenlee. Both QB’s have done okay for the Bulldogs, with Virgil throwing the ball more accurately and for more yards, but with more turnovers. Greenlee is about 30 lbs heavier than Virgil and just doesn’t seem to have the same moxy. It looks as though Greenlee will be the starter for the game this Saturday, but you can expect to see both QB’s to see the field. Neither has shown to be anything too threatening at this point, but that unknown may work to their favor. The Bulldogs run a spread style offense under familiar coaches Dave Schramm and Jordan Wynn. The receivers at this point are talented but mostly unproven with 6’4 Junior Josiah Blandin leading the core. He is tall, fast and athletic with the ability to reach over smaller DB’s to get his hands on a ball. Blandin has 5 catches for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns thus far and will be looking to grab another TD this week. His counterpart Da’Mari Scott was suspended for the first game of the season, but made up for lost time last week grabbing 5 balls for 67 yards, he is talented and very fast.
DOMO IS BACK! And just in time. While the secondary has done well enough for the most part, they are a few overthrown balls away from a loss. Had the QB’s in the two previous games been even just a little bit more accurate, this could be a very different season for the Utes. Each DB is talented, fast, and skilled, but they just haven’t seemed to gel, and are missing the swag that comes with being a DB for the Utes. DOMO brings that swag and so much more, with his skill set and his mouth he has the ability to lock down a receiver. Hatfield has shown that he gets better every game and coming off his suspension he should be looking to make a statement this game as the full time starter.
Fresno State Running Back and Tight End vs Utah Linebackers
Much like the Utes, they will be relying very heavily on their strong running back work-horse this year. Marteze Waller is one of the better running backs in the country with over 2400 yards in his career. At 5’11 210lbs #33 Waller is an every down back who is capable of taking it to the house on any given play. Last year he ran for over 1300 yards and 11 TD’s, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He has not been used much as a receiving threat in his career, however Coach Schramm seems to have warmed up to the idea a bit more this year. Waller ran for 91 yards on 28 carries last week against the Rebels big SEC defense, the Utes can look for a similar carry count this Saturday. As for the Tight End position #46 Chad Olsen is the man for the bulldogs. Olsen is 6’5 and 235lbs a big target, especially in the RedZone where he has already scored 2 touchdowns this year.
Coming off a big game against the Aggies, Gionni Paul was named PAC-12 player of the week last week will have the task once again of stopping the best player on the team. Paul, along with Norris and Whittingham will be in position to have a big game this week. Norris continues to be Norris, a solid extremely talented LB who is always around the ball and leading the team by example. While Jason Whittingham has been okay in his role, he is the weak link of the three recording just 4 tackles on the season, while Paul and Norris have combined for 21 and 18 respectively. The group as a whole is very good with two NFL level Linebackers, rotating in a slew of younger or less experienced LB’s to help out and they will keep most defenses at bay.
Fresno State Offensive Line vs Utah Defensive Line
The Offensive line for the Bulldogs is a little bit on the light side, but they are experienced and have only given up one sack on the year. This line, led by 2 very good senior tackles in Alex Fifita and Justin Northern, should make getting to whoever the passer is quite difficult. This group is quick, cohesive and disciplined in their pass protection. As run blockers there is defintitley room for improvement, and with Waller’s talent he should be getting a lot more yards. This group is okay at the initial push, but seems deficient at getting blockers to the second level.
The Utes line, led by Lowell Lotuleile,i has been solid in the run game thus far in the season giving up an average of just 96.5 yards per game. They are stout and nobody looks to be able to get past them for the most part. It’s the current inability to generate sacks that is missing from the Utes. Week one didn’t register even a sack, and in week 2 they got to Chuckie Keeton just twice. While that is improvement, it is a far cry from the expectations Sack Lake City generated after last year's incredible numbers. Last year the Utes recorded 7 sacks against this Fresno State team and should be looking to finally get back on track against the Bulldogs. This DL is deep, with Fitts and Pita T filling in very nicely, we shouldn’t expect too much of a drop off for this game if Hunter Dimick is unable to go.
Utah Special Teams vs Fresno State Special Teams
Another strength for the Utes last year was the special teams combination of Phillips, Hackett, and Kaelin Clay; this year has not seen the best performances from the kickers, and the return game has not followed its recent tradition of domination. Phillps did better in week 2 against the Aggies connecting from 37 yards out, but once again he booted a kickoff out of bounds, which just simply cannot happen. Hackett is still solid, however he seems to be auditioning for the NFL, punting in a more traditional style rather than his amazing rugby style kicks. Covey and Hobbs have been taking return duties and both are fearless (maybe to a fault), however we did see a glimpse of what Covey will be able to do if they ever kick it to him.
For the Bulldogs, they are simply solid in their kicking game with Kicker Kody Kroening at 100% on the year (7/7 extra points, and 1/1 - 40 yds field goal). Punter Garrett Swanson is able to pin opponents inside the 20 yard line on a regular basis as well. In the return game Jordan Jamir is the returner and has accumulated quite a bit of return yards, however this will be skewed just because of the sheer number of reutrns due to TD’s the Bulldogs have given up.