Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, November 28, 2014

2014 Utah Football Preview: the Finish Line

Finally, the finish line.  It's been an interesting year, football, but I think we're all in need of a palate cleanser. At least I am.  See you in March.

Kickoff from beautiful Folsom Field is set for 11am on Saturday.  Yes, tomorrow; just like last year, we can't have Friday football after Turkey Day.  Everyone was so intent on killing this rivalry before it started that it's just another Saturday game now. Sure glad we chose to dismiss, out-of-hand, the only geographical rivalry that made sense in this league. *sigh*  Let's just keep waiting for USC to give a shit about the Black and Gold... still waiting...

Anyway, the game will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.  The radio call is on 850 KOA.  AKA, the usual.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

I made the trip out to Salt Lake City last fall with little hope that the Buffs would be much competition for the Utes. In fact, the conclusion seemed to be so foregone that I brought my headphones along, and planned to mostly spend the afternoon listening to the CU/Air Force basketball game that was tipping off during the action.  Certainly, the first half in the Beehive State lived up to expectations, as a pair of turnovers and a run of skittish play from QB Sefo Liufau helped the Buffs dig a 21-0 hole before the break.  After half, however, the team came alive, and started to roar on both sides of the ball.  Those pre-half miss-fires, though, proved to be too much for the comeback effort, as the 2013 season ended with a 24-17 loss.

Man, was that first half ugly.  The offensive drive chart goes fumble-punt-punt-fumble-punt-punt-downs-punt - that turnover on downs was after an interception gave the Buffs a 1st-and-goal from the Utah 5-yard line. CU's defense was playing well enough to win, causing two turnovers themselves, and otherwise making plays, but the team was a horrendous series of gaffes with the ball in their hands.  There was dropped passes, poor line play, running backs missing holes, and Sefo playing like a freshman.  Had the defense not been performing well, Colorado would've been behind a lot more than 21 after 30 minutes.
A poor first half from Liufau dug too deep a hole.  From: the BDC
The breather at halftime seemed to calm everybody down, and the team played pretty well in the 3rd and 4th quarters.  A 78-yard touchdown drive on their second possession of the second half tilted the field, and finally gave the Buffs a foothold in the game.  When, a few possessions later, the team was back inside the red zone with a 1st-and-goal from the 3-yard line, I started to believe.  That seems to be when this program loves to pull out the rug, however, and the possession stalled into a field goal, which was quickly answered by the Utes.  Colorado would have one last chance after a series of defensive stands and a late score gave them the ball with two minutes to play.  An interception on the first play, though, ended all doubt, as CU slinked back to Boulder knowing a golden opportunity was missed.

It was a rarity last year to see the defense keep the team in the game.  They held Utah under 400 yards of offense and to 6 of 17 on third down, all while forcing them into seven punts and two turnovers.  Not bad, all things considered.  Unfortunately, the offense just wasn't up to snuff.  Paul Richardson was all but absent (4 catches, 54 yards), the team couldn't run the ball to save their lives (25 rushes for 64 yards), and quarterback play was all over the place. It's just a shame that the 'O' couldn't help that defensive effort stand up in hostile territory.

The Utes in 2014 - 

It was just a few weeks ago that the Utes were 6-1, the #17 team in the nation, and in control of their destiny in the topsy-turvy world of the Pac-12 South.  They claimed big wins @Michigan, @UCLA, and vs USC. Outside of a random one-point loss to Washington State in SLC, they were having as good of a season as anybody in the country.
Some early impressive wins have given way to recent struggles.
Then, the schedule jumped up and got them.  The Pac-12 goes 10-deep in quality teams, and the last four weeks had them going to Arizona State and Stanford, while hosting Oregon and Arizona.  The best two teams in each division.  Understandably, the Utes would lose three of those four (beating only Stanford in a double-overtime 'thriller'), derailing their season, and ending all hope of a Pac-12 title.  The problem was on the ground, where the Sun Devils, Ducks, Cardinal, and Wildcats ran all over the usually stout Ute run defense for 996 yards in four weeks. Not as easy as life in the Mountain West, is it?

It's to the point that I'm not entirely sure what Utah is playing for on Saturday.  They've already clinched bowl eligibility, can't finish any higher than 5th in the Pac-12 South, and really can't earn anything more than a mid-tier bowl berth (currently, ESPN has them going to the Hawai'i Bowl).  I guess you can make an argument for the thrill of having an over-.500 record in the conference for the first time ever, but I don't know if that really means all that much.  Especially since they are all so adamant that the Rumble in the Rockies is not a rivalry, I'm really interested to see how invested they are in this one.
With Utah's place in the league decided, I'm not sure what they're playing for tomorrow.
Because, if they are invested, the Buffs are going to face the full force of a very strong, defensive-mided team. Before their run against the giants of the league, they were in the top-20 nationally in rush defense, and top-50 in overall defense.  Even now, after all those rough efforts, they're giving up under 30 points per game.  Backed by one of the better punters in all of America, they love to play field position football, and generally make you work for everything put up on the scoreboard.

The Utes kind of have to play this way, because their offense is nothing special.  They run the ball all right, getting about 180 yards per game, but really struggle in the air, where they're in the 100s nationally in production.  They're just not very dynamic, and can't really keep up with any team that proves they can move the ball against their defense.  This is why they lost to a team like Washington State, who can really sling it around, yet beat a team like Stanford, who is stuck in neutral offensively.

Star Players - 

On offense, this team is all about Devontae Booker.  Originally a Washington State commit, he went the JuCo route after a rough SAT score made him a non-qualifier, and chose the Utes after a stellar two-year career at American River College.  In his first season of Division 1 football, he's proven more than athletically capable of competing at this level.  The 5-11 junior has put up 1,255 yards through 11 games, at a 5.2 yards per carry clip.  Through the first seven games of the year, especially, he looked like the best feature back in the West.
Booker is one of the best runners in the Pac-12
It's has had to be the Booker show, because the Utes are without their best receiving target - Dres Anderson. Unfortunately, Booker has suffered from extra attention.  Utah struggled to throw the ball before the injury, and now their aerial attack is plain anemic, leaving opponents to stack the box. Accordingly, since the Anderson injury, Devontae has yet to find the endzone, and is down to 4.3 yards per carry.  He still has good numbers, but his efficacy is reduced.

Trying to pickup the slack on the edge without Anderson is junior Kenneth Scott.  The problem with that is that Scott is not nearly the consistent threat that Dres had proven to be, and doesn't really have anyone of note throwing him the ball. Junior Travis Wilson is back under center for the Utes, but he's been wildly inconsistent, only throwing for about 150 yards per game on under 60% accuracy.  Rumblings are that it's down to coaching, but I have never been all that convinced about Wilson. Utah just doesn't have the aerial weapons necessary to compete against Pac-12 defensive backfields, and it's taken a great season from Booker, and turned it into just a very good one.

On defense, the super star is senior defensive end Nate Orchard.  At 6-4, 255, The Salt Lake City native stands out immediately when watching Ute football, and should be one of the first ends taken next April in the NFL Draft.  He has 17.5 sacks on the season, and can completely take over games by getting to the quarterback, and otherwise owning the line of scrimmage.  He's big, fast, and active. Orchard pairs well with the other end, sophomore Hunter Dimick, who has 10 sacks of his own.
Not for nothing, but he'd look good in a Bears uniform
Behind them, the best linebacker is junior Jared Norris.  He's recorded 101 tackles this fall, including 13 for loss, and four sacks.  A traditional mike, he gets all over the field, and is generally found around the ball at the end of plays.  Junior Gionni Paul was the more active 'backer in the pass game, but the Miami transfer is out for the rest of the year with a foot injury.

The backfield is dominated by Eric Rowe.  The 6-1 senior leads the team in breakups and passes defended. He'll move around a bit, and is capable of playing at both safety and corner.

Coaching - 

It boggles the mind, but this is Kyle Whittingham's 10th season at the head of the Utah football program; the second longest tenure in the conference (Mike Riley at OSU). Just to confirm, in that time CU has had four coaches, not that it really matters.  It's a testament, both to Whittingham's skill as a coach, and the patience shown by both himself and the administration in Salt Lake City, that he's lasted this long.
Whittingham has been a fixture on the Utah sideline. From: the SLTrib
Generally an easy tenure, things haven't been as kind in recent years.  The switch to the Pac-12 took the Utes from a regional power to a regional competitor.  In his seven years in the Mountain West, Whittingham had Utah in seven bowls, winning six of of them (including that 13-0 2008 run).  Since the move to Power 5 football, however, the team has only been to one bowl (about to go to a second), and played just two games over .500 overall, 13-22 in conference.  He was generally lucky to survive last season's 2-7 conference slog, and the natives are getting restless with his handling of the roster.  I'm not saying his seat is hot, but it could be considered warm-ish.  Utah is finally getting a full share of Pac-12 media revenue, and, at some point, the AD might want to make a splash, and use that Power 5 money to hire a Power 5 coach.

Prediction - 

My record: 9-2. Against the spread: 6-5. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +4.8 pts/gm
Line as of Wednesday @ 6pm - CU +10, O/U 59

I think it'll go like most home games have this fall, with CU playing better than most had expected, before coming up painfully short in the second half.  In the end, I'll say the Buffs even fail to cover.  A dour end to a season spent in a Sisyphean struggle with the meaning of success.

I'm just ready for the offseason, at this point.

Utah 27 - CU 14


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