Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Utah Preview: A new kind of hate

Apparently the geniuses in the respective marketing departments from CU and Utah have decided to name the renewed rivalry between the schools as "The Rumble in the Rockies."  Why the hell did they have to go and do that?  We never seemed to require a faked-up PR name to give the CU-Nebraska rivalry some juice.  Is there going to be some lame trophy with a rock on it?  Just give me clean, old-fashioned, nameless hate.  That'll do more for a rivalry than any name.

The rivalry with Utah (yes, there is a rivalry... look, Wikipedia page!) is one of great historical significance for both schools.  Even the breakup of the old RMAC couldn't keep these rivals apart as they played nearly every year between 1903 and 1962.  Coaches careers were defined by this game, players, like Byron White, made names for themselves by superlative performances against the hated rivals to the west.  This was the rivalry in the region for the first half of the 20th Century; a history major like myself can't look past something like that.

Yes, the Utes are a poor substitute for Nebraska, both in program quality and my ability to hate them, but I'd rather go after someone with whom the school has history than just point at USC or UCLA and give them the stink-eye.  While that is what Coach Mac did with the Huskers back in the early 80s, that rivalry wasn't set in stone until the Huskers hung that celebratory "Sal's dead, Go Big Red" sign up on I-80.  Hate, history; these are what creates a lasting rivalry.  With Utah we're halfway there.  With everyone else in the Pac-12, it's searching for both.

Fuck Utah

(I wrote about this in greater detail during a brief stint writing for the Ralphie Report.)


The season comes to a close on Friday.  Wake up from your food coma, crack open the leftovers, and tune the channel to ROOT Sports, where the Buffs will kick off against the Utes at 1:30.  It's my one and only road trip of the year, and, even if the team is awful, I'm still looking forward to a fight in enemy territory.

Click below for the preview...

Thank God this season is over.  If I learned anything, it's that 13 weeks can be made to feel like 10,000.  Like the gradual ticking of the clock on the last day of class before summer break, the weeks have flowed like chilled molasses, but we've finally arrived at the ultimate week.

I'm spent, exhausted of any interest in covering the program for at least a few months.  Give me my basketball and leave this football garbage to the junkies; I've had more than my fill.  11 losses will do that to a man.  I can only imagine how tired of the season Coach Embree has become...

Opponents season so far - 

The Utes, while initially thought to be readily capable of competing in the Pac-12, struggled mightily out of the gate in conference play.  I chalk their 0-4 start in Pac-12 play mostly to the problems associated with losing one of the best QBs in the West.  Jordan Wynn, a one-time CU recruit, who had lead the Utes ably since the beginning of his career, went down against Washington with a season-ending shoulder injury.  Sluggish start explained.  (Hey, it could've been worse, they drew the long end of the scheduling stick as they avoided both Stanford and Oregon.)
The loss of Jordan Wynn threw a monkey wrench into the Ute's plans.
Once they adjusted to life without their leader, the Utes righted the ship, and have won their last four conference games.  The result of their 4-game burst is that are still, improbably, in the hunt for the Pac-12 South's championship bid.  They would  need a win over CU and a lot of help in the form of losses from both ASU and UCLA, but it's still a possibility. Because of the dim hope of a divisional crown, expect the Utes to come out firing on all cylinders.

Offense & Defense - 

Lacking the services of Jordan Wynn, the Ute offense lives and dies with the running game.  They've run the ball 407 times as a team, while only attempting a shockingly low 277 passes.  They run, a lot.  While only 7th in the conference in rushing yards per game, they depend on the rush to control the ball and the clock.
It's all about the run game in SLC.
While they do a decent job controlling the ball through their rushing attack, their passing game is pathetic.  Dead last in the Pac-12 through the air, and as a result, the whole offense finds themselves dead last in total offense/game.  All told, they only manage to procure 311 yards per contest, about 30 yards per game less than the Buffs similarly struggling offense.

Defensively, they create turnovers and limit opponents through the air to help keep their anemic offense in the game.  Best in the conference in both pass efficiency defense and scoring defense, and second in rush defense and turnover margin, they've been able to do enough with the D to scrape out a few wins.  However, the notable absence of Stanford and Oregon from their schedule does make you wonder how good their defense would look right now had they been saddled with CU's schedule.  I imagine that rush defense would take a massive hit...
They've played well the last few weeks against lighter competition.
They do a great job of forcing you into a long-yardage situation and then attacking the passing game on 3rd down; they have 28 sacks and 18 picks on the year.

Star Players - 

The running attack, which is so crucial to the teams overall success, is dependent on the legs of diminutive junior running back John White.  Speedy-sized for your enjoyment, the JuCo transfer has racked up an impressive stat line of 1,456 rushing yards and 14 scores.  He averages 125 yards per game, and almost 5/carry.   With a slightly above-average performance on Friday, he could break the Utah single-season rushing record. Not too bad for a first year starter that runs out there listed at 5-8, 186.
White has been a revelation in Utah.  A really good back, and one of the best performers in the conference.
The starting QB handing off to White is junior Jon Hays.  He has done a passable job filling in for Wynn, but he rarely sniffs anything over 150 passing yards in a game; he's also no threat to run when the play breaks down. His primary target is junior DeVonte Christopher, but he reels in less than 60 yards per contest.  The ground game with White is the thing.

On defense, watch out for sophomore rover Brian Blechen.  Coach Embree had this to say about him this week: "That is the guy you have to neutralize because he’ll single-handedly wreck things for you." He's the Ute's second leading tackler and has 3 picks and 2 sacks to his credit.  Really a do-it all defensive terror.

Senior Conroy Black is a pretty damn good shut-down corner with NFL level speed; has 4 picks on the season, returning one for a score.  Sophomore linebacker Trevor Reilly leads the team in both sacks and tackles for loss.
Reilly does a good job getting into the opponents backfield.

Coaching -

Ute Coach Kyle Whittingham was faced with the unenviable task of following Urban Meyer in SLC after Meyer bolted for the Florida Gators.  Coach Meyer had just taken the Utes to the Fiesta Bowl in 2004, and few expected the good times to continue for the Utes.  Instead, Coach Willingham rebuilt the program, and had them back in the BCS four years later with their '08 trip to the Sugar Bowl.  That '08 team finished 2nd in the final AP poll that season, with a 13-0 record, and many thought they should've been granted the opportunity to play BCS-buster in the national title game.
'08 was a magical year for Whittinham and the Utes.
The best part about Willingham, a BYU grad of all things, is that he stayed with the Utes.  It would be easily understandable if he had jumped for greener pastures (read: more money) after the perfect season in '08, but he's stayed pat, seemingly dedicated to guiding the Utes through the perils inherent in being a BCS conference member.

After three consecutive seasons blessed with double-digit victory totals, the Utes have comparatively struggled a bit in this, their first season in the Pac-12, as their record stands at 7-4 (4-4).  Overall, however, Willingham's record guiding the Beehive State's flagship program sits at a sterling 65-24.

Prediction -

Not a chance in hell.  If CU was going to win a road game this season, it needed to have been last week.  That lifeless sack of crap that blech-ed its way into the Rose Bowl certainly isn't going to march in to SLC and take down a desperate team which has crawled back into the race for the Pac-12 Title Game.

Speedy will get the 41 yards he needs to become only the 27th player in NCAA history to amass 3,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards, but that's about the only good that will come out of this game.  At least I'm headed to SLC with 15 of my closest friends; I'll have company when the hammer falls on the season.

Utah 42 - CU 10


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