Game Matchups: Utah defense vs SJSU offense

Utah goes on the road for the first time on Saturday to take on San Jose State from the Mountain West Conference. UteZone breaks down the matchups that Utah's defense and special teams units will face.

Utah goes on the road for the first time on Saturday to take on San Jose State from the Mountain West Conference. UteZone breaks down the matchups that Utah's defense and special teams units will face.

San Jose State Offense

The Spartans run a multiple offense in that they will line up in any number of personnel packages and formations, from under center with two tight ends to shotgun with an empty backfield. They are a run-heavy offense with a high-percentage passing attack, similar to how BYU plays on offense—though the Spartans will at least attempt to stretch the field in the passing game.

In the running game, San Jose State is an interesting mix of inside and outside zone, power, and option. They haven’t run many counters or traps through the first two games, using instead the option as the base misdirection run. The Spartans struggled in the running game in the opener against Tulsa, gaining just 53 yards on 32 carries. Against Portland State the running game exploded for 409 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 7.2 yards per carry.

Washington transfer Deontae Cooper is the lead back, and is a solid interior runner. He could be quicker, could be faster, and isn’t going to overpower many defenders, but he has good vision and patience, picking his way through the line and generally gaining positive yards. Cooper ran for 126 yards on 18 carries against Portland State after gaining just 43 yards in the opener. Freshman Zamore Zigler has good speed and quickness, but he is a tiny back at 5-foot-10, 167 pounds. He also ran for 100 yards against Portland State, finishing with 111 yards on 15 carries, including a 74-yards touchdown run. Sophomore Malik Robinson is similar to Zigler is size, stature, and skills. Robinson had an 87-yard touchdown run against Portland State. Quarterback Kenny Potter is a decent runner, with 48 yards and 2 touchdowns on the season, though he has been sacked 6 times. Potter is a good athlete and can cause problems if given a lane to run.

Perhaps the biggest issue for the Spartans offense is the offensive line. Though experienced with four returning starters, they were pushed around by Tulsa and have allowed 6 sacks through the first two games of the season—to two teams that haven’t had more than 30 sacks in a season since 2012. Add in that they will likely be without arguably their best lineman in right tackle Nate Velichko, and it could be a rough day for the Spartans offensive line. Left guard Jeremiah Kolone is a solid player, and along with Velichko earned honorable mention conference honors in 2015. Freshman Troy Kowalski starts at left tackle, and he has had a rough start to the season. Center Keoni Taylor is experienced, but he lacks the strength or quickness to be anything more than an average blocker. Right guard Chris Gonzalez has decent strength, but lacks quickness and footwork, forcing him to lean and reach too often. Senior Evan Sarver will likely fill in for Velichko. Sarver is serviceable, but is best suited to be a backup swing tackle, not a starter. The Spartans lack talent and depth up front.

In the passing game, San Jose State prefers to try and get the ball to their athletes in space, running multiple screen passes, quick-hitting sideline routes, and some crossing/’pick’ routes over the middle of the field. They will occasionally throw the ball deep, but most of their big passing plays are of the catch-and-run variety.

Tim Crawley is the leader of the receivers despite his diminutive stature. Standing at just 5-foot-7, Crawley is tied for the team lead with 6 catches, with just 55 yards. He is more quick than fast, but he is a reliable receiver who can make the first defender miss. After Crawley, San Jose State features a trio of sophomores who they will rotate in at both receiver positions. Tre Hartley has not been listed on the depth chart this season despite starting the opener and leading the team with 6 catches and 126 yards. He has good size and speed, and can be dangerous if given space to operate. Justin Holmes has the best size of the receivers at 6-foot-2 and 203 pounds, and he possesses good speed to go with it. Holmes is second on the team with 112 yards on 4 catches, including a 46-yard touchdown against Portland State. Rahshead Johnson rounds out the receiving quartet. Johnson is a taller version of Crawley at 5-foot-11, and he has similar quickness and perhaps better speed. He is third on the team with 86 yards on 4 catches. Tight end Billy Freeman isn’t going to wow anything with size or athleticism, but he finds ways to get open and has soft hands. He has 4 catches for 53 yards and a touchdown this season. San Jose State doesn’t really feature the backs in the passing game.

Potter is a decent college quarterback who can generally put the ball where it needs to be when it needs to get to the receiver. He can move around a bit in the pocket to buy time but is more comfortable throwing on the run. He doesn’t have the strongest arm but makes up for that with his timing in the short passing game. His deep ball does float a bit and he can be inaccurate time times, but he generally makes good decisions and does a good job of leading his receivers into open spaces in the defense. Freshman Josh Love is the backup quarterback, though he hasn’t had much of a chance to show what skills he has, throwing just one pass at the collegiate level.

Utah Defense

Utah’s defense has been tough through two games, allowing 19 points on the season despite the offense turning the ball over seven times. The defense is allowing a meager 4.1 yards per play and 243 yards per game, both good enough to rank in the top-25 nationally. The Utes have allowed teams to enter the redzone twice this season in 27 opponents drives, forcing offenses to go three-and-out half the time, 13 times—three other drives have ended after two or fewer plays.

The strength of the Utah defense has been the defensive line. Utah’s front four are clogging running lanes and getting pressure on the quarterback. Utah did have problems against BYU containing a running quarterback, staying disciplined in their pass rush and slow-playing the option, all issues that play into strengths of San Jose State’s quarterback. Utah’s depth could also be tested for the first time this season with the loss of defensive end Kylie Fitts. Utah had played three defensive ends this season, with Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu rotating with Fitts. Redshirt freshman Chris Hart will likely see his first playing time this week as the third end. Hart is coming off an off-season injury and might not be in game shape quite yet. The good news for the Utes is that Dimick is a good all-around defensive end while Taumoepenu is one of the better speed rushers in the conference. Run defense could suffer with Taumoepenu, Hart or Anae on the field, as all are a little small and could have problems setting the edge of the run defense.

To compensate for the loss of Fitts’ ability in the run game, Utah could move tackle Filip Mokofisi to end on running downs, especially against a team like San Jose State that wants to run the football. Mokofisi would be a little heavy for an end at 278 pounds, but the has the quickness and technique to not be a liability. He also played some end last season when Hunter Dimick was injured. If Mokofisi slides over to end, Pasoni Tasini will take over at tackle next to All-American candidate Lowell Lotulelei. Tasini has played well this season, recording 7 tackles and a tackle for loss as the third tackle. He can hold up to double-team blocks and has the quickness to beat offensive linemen and make plays in the backfield. Tasini could start for quite a few teams in the Pac-12. Lotulelei is solid and appears to have improved a bit as a pass rusher, coming close to getting to the quarterback despite drawing a double team on nearly every play. Utah will have to dig into their young but talented tackle depth. Sophomore Alani Havili-Katoa would be the likely fourth tackle, and Utah could play freshmen Vaha Vainuku and Leki Fotu.

Linebacker play has been a little hit-or-miss this season, as Cody Barton and Sunia Tauteoli have been out of position at times as well as making some big plays. Tauteoli has been the flashier of the two, picking off a pair of passes against BYU. He also allowed the potential game-winning touchdown against the Cougars by losing contain and leaving his feet on the final score of the game. Barton has been around the field more, leading the team with 17 tackles. Barton has been slightly more consistent in his assignments, though he has missed some tackles. Kavika Luafatasaga is the third linebacker, and he could see more playing time this week when San Jose State goes with their heavy packages. Coverage has been a bit of a problem for the linebackers despite Tauteoli’s interceptions, as they have been a little soft in their zones and a little late to react to receivers in their area.

Utah’s secondary has been terrific this season, allowing teams to throw for 113 yards per game at just 3.8 yards per attempt while intercepting four passes without allowing a touchdown. All of those numbers are among the best in the country at this point in the season.

The corners have played perhaps better than expected, playing tight coverage and refusing to give ground to receivers. The most surprising aspect of the corner play has been the tackling, and the Utes are one of just four teams that has not allowed a pass of 20 or more yards, and one of the other three has played one game. Utah has played this well despite missing one of their top playmaking corners in Dominique Hatfield, who has yet to play this season due to an injury. Hatfield might be available to play this week. In his absence, Brian Allen has stepped up and been outstanding, allowing few passes to be caught and being physical at the line of scrimmage. Allen has 7 tackles through two games, including a sack against BYU. Reginald Porter broke through last week and intercepted his first career pass. Porter has been a little softer in coverage, but he is a solid tackler, leading the corners with 8 tackles. Nickel corners Justin Thomas and Boobie Hobbs haven’t been quite as good as expected, especially Thomas who has been a step behind receivers this season, though is fairness to Thomas a lot of those receptions have been across the middle where a linebacker should be giving inside help.

At safety, Marcus Williams continues his play as one of the better safeties in the Pac-12 and by far the best ‘center fielder.’ Williams has developed into a more physical run defender, leading the secondary with 10 tackles, which doesn’t include his assisted tackle on BYU’s two-point attempt, sealing Utah’s win. Chase Hansen has been a solid complementary player to Williams despite a nagging hand injury. Hansen has 7 tackles on the season, rotating at times with Andre Godfrey.

Utah’s run defense could be tested by a team that likes to run the ball, and the secondary will be forced to tackle playmakers in space. Utah has the better players across the board and should be able to shut down yet another offense.

Special Teams

Utah might be the favorite to win the Ray Guy Award for an unprecedented third time. Mitch Wishnowsky has picked up right where Tom Hackett left off, leading the nation in both punt average (54.4 yards per punt) and net average (47.7). Seven of his nine punts have travelled 50 or more yards, and only three punts have been returned.

Andy Phillips hit both of his field goals against BYU, including a season-long 47-yard attempt. Phillips has been solid despite dealing with a nagging injury to his kicking foot. He has made three of his four field goal attempts, with his injury likely having a strong influence on his miss.

Hayes Hicken has handled kickoff with Phillips limited to placekicking duties, and Hicken might have beaten Phillips out for the job. 70 percent of his kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks, including four of five against BYU.

Utah’s coverage teams have been solid through two games, allowing 16.3 yards per kick return and 7 yards per punt return.

The one area where Utah needs improvement on special teams is in the return games. Boobie Hobbs has flashed some potential, but his aggressiveness finally cost him against BYU, as he lost a muffed punt that he should have fair caught. Even when Hobbs has had room to field the punt, his downfield blocking could be better. Blocking on kick returns has been poor as far too many opposing players have free runs at the return man. The Utes are getting just 13.2 yards per punt return despite having some electric return men in Terrell Burgess and Julian Blackmon. They just don’t have any space to work with. Only four schools average fewer yards per kick return than Utah.

San Jose State could struggle in some areas on special teams. Kicker Bryce Crawford is solid, as he has made both of his field goal attempts and all 10 of his PAT kicks this season. He doesn’t have much experience, making 6-of-7 PATs and 1-of-2 field goals last season as a freshman. He doesn’t have a big leg and has yet to attempt a kick of more than 38 yards, and had just 6 touchbacks kicking off last season.

Punter Michael Carrizosa could be better. He is averaging 42.8 yards per punt this season and has had a punt blocked. He can get some distance on his punts, with a long of 58 yards, but in general he is better with touch than with distance. Half of his punts have ended inside the 20-yard line. He also handles kickoffs, with 9 touchbacks in 14 kicks.

Coverage teams are solid, as the Spartans are allowing 14.2 yards per kick return and 10.2 yards per punt return. That punt return number looks worse than it is, as that includes the 25 yards allowed on the blocked punt. Other than that return, they are allowing 5.3 yards per return.

The Spartans could be better in the return game. Rahshead Johnson averages a respectable 26.6 yards per return, and he has the speed to be a threat, but his blocking has been inconsistent. Tim Crawley hasn’t had many chances to return punts, but he made the worst of his one attempt, losing 6 yards. Crawley has not been good as a punt returning, averaging 4.1 yards on 8 returns prior to this season.

Prediction: Utah is the better team in every phase of the game. It is unlikely the Utes will lose the turnover battle, not to mention giving up the football six times as they did against BYU. The Utes will control the game from start to finish as the defense comes close to pitching another shutout. Utah wins 27-3.

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