Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, November 27, 2015

2015 CU vs Utah Football Teaser

As is tradition, I'm headed westward this afternoon, driving down I-80 with a few of my closest friends towards Salt Lake City.  Sure, this season, much like all the others in recent memory, is doomed to end in bowl-less failure, but I've yet to miss a CU/Utah game since the revival of the series, and I'm not about to now.  The annual clashes - still unfortunately tabbed as the 'Rumble in the Rockies' -  make for interesting post-Thanksgiving fodder, and you can do a whole lot worse than a weekend in SLC... like, say, a weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Let me use this space, then, for a plea to you, the humble consumer of CU Athletics: take this rivalry seriously.  We are never, I repeat never, going to get entwined with the Trojans or any of the other original Pac-10 schools.  They're always going to consume their traditional rivalries far more intently than any game against Colorado, nothing will ever change that.  Yep, the Utes are what we got, but it ain't exactly chopped liver; these guys are actually a perfectly fine foil for our purposes.  More importantly, they've made a far easier transition to the new era of western football than CU has, and can still serve as a standard of improvement for our beleaguered program -- far more than any mid-major, instate competition ever could. We Buffaloes need a rival, we have to pick a fight. There's no better option than Utah, so stop whining, and start flipping some Utes the bird.


Hype Music for the Week: "Hello!" from the Book of Mormon Original Soundtrack

Yep, going with the Mormon pun.  I make no apologies.  Enjoy!


Kickoff from Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, UT is set for 12:30pm MT tomorrow afternoon. Coverage for those not making the roadie to the Beehive State can be found on Pac-12 Networks, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

Click below for the teaser...

If the vast majority of the fans on each side of the continental divide take a blasé view of the 'Rumble in the Rockies,' the players from Colorado and Utah have at least done us all the favor of keeping the action feisty on the field. Through four meetings since reviving a series that once defined football in the mountain states, the teams have combined for just as many close games, with an average winning margin of just over five points.  The play has been taught, dramatic, and appropriate to the setting of a season finale.
The Buffs and Utes have been keeping it close in the modern series. From: The Ralphie Report.
Such was the case last fall when the Utes visited Boulder.  The two teams posted nearly identical offensive totals, each found the endzone four times, and exchanged the lead on eight separate occasions. The only difference, really, was a late-game mistake from CU's then-sophomore QB Sefo Liufau.  With the ball and the lead in the fourth quarter, he miss-fired a screen pass into the waiting arms of Utah DB Dominique Hatfield, who returned the wayward toss 20-yards into the Colorado endzone. The Buffs had their chances to respond, but bizarrely punted away their only other fourth quarter drive of consequence from the Utah 46-yard line.  That pick was the only turnover and the final scoring play of the ballgame, the winning moment of a 38-34 final; one of the most captivating and utterly disappointing results of the entire 2014 season.

Is that not what you're looking for, then, when searching for a rival?  Close games with climactic, gut-wrenching finishes on a yearly basis? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? Yes, I too wish the tilts meant more, with the results having at least some bearing on the race for the Pac-12 crown (although Colorado's win in 2011 did cost the Utes an appearance in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game), but you really can't ask for much more.
The Utes have held their own against the nation's best this fall.  From: the Salt Lake Trib.
Hopefully, that run of twisting, turning, riotous affairs will continue this season and into the future. The Buffs are certainly facing an uphill climb to do so tomorrow, however.  Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has put together a legitimately strong group that excels at all three phases; this is a team, after all, that has beaten Michiganembarrassed Oregon in their own house, and had been undefeated deep into October.  Coming in at 8-3 overall, 5-3 in Pac-12 play, they may have slipped up a bit from their early pace that had them in the hunt for a a conference title and a potential slot in the Playoff, and in fact have lost their last two, but the Utes are still a dangerous, capable bunch.

The trick with them is that they beat you in the margins.  They're only average offensively (381 yards per game, 79th nationally), especially in the high-flying Pac-12, and only slightly better defensively (370/48th). Where they shine, though, is in fringe areas like turnover margin (20th in the country), redzone offensive conversion rate (92%), fewest penalties per (about five per game), and punting (43 yards per attempt, #1 in America).  This is a team that rarely beats itself, plays solid, field-position oriented football, and looks to find the little cracks that can turn a game.
It's not too often that you have to worry about the opponent's punter, but Hackett is a beast.  From: the Salt Lake Trib
Really, what I'm talking about here is special teams; they're simply the best in the region at making special teams plays count.  Where other squads look at the transition points between offense and defense as throw-away action, the Utes find opportunities to gain leverage.  Between two of the best kickers in the country - PK Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett - and some occasional wrinkles that leave opponents scratching their heads in confusion, the Utes can make even the most prepared and focused of teams look foolish.  As the Buffs have routinely shown a propensity to give up big plays with 'the specials' on the field, I can't help but think special teams alone could be the difference tomorrow.

More conventionally, Utah is spurred on offense by senior starting QB Travis Wilson. Standing at a towering 6-7, 233, Wilson is more than prone to a fit of zaniness (nine picks on the year to only 12 touchdown tosses), but is a strong scrambler and improviser when the play breaks down.  While Travis can hurt you with his arm, his best play on almost every down had usually been to just hand it off to senior running back Devontae Booker.  The JuCo transfer from Sacramento developed into one of the most consistent backs in the league over the last two years, and had accounted for essentially two-thirds of the Utes' offense through the first nine weeks of this season. Unfortunately for the Utes, Booker came up lame against the Arizona Wildcats a few games back, and is out for the Rumble tomorrow.  It's a huge absence for the team.  Without Devontae, the Utah offense was a disaster in the Rose Bowl last week, only gaining 4.1 yards per snap and putting up just three field goals in the 17-9 loss to UCLA. Still, even without Booker, don't expect this group to suddenly become a passing team.  They will still run the ball a lot, primarily with backup RB Joe Williams in power sets and Wilson on the draw and read-option.
Without Booker, the Utes' attack comes down to Wilson.  From:
Defensively, they strike a very stout front, particularly focused on stopping the run.  Utah is allowing only 117 yards per game on the ground this season, and should be more than capable of shutting down CU's inconsistent rushing attack, particularly when faced with a freshman QB making only his second start under center.  The big star is linebacker Gionni Paul.  A 5-11 senior transfer from Miami, Paul leads the team in tackles (96 total), TFLs (12.5), and fumble recoveries (three).  He's considered by some to be the team's ultimate play-maker, and goes a long way towards making the Utes a respectable defensive club. In the backfield, the focus is sophomore safety Marcus Williams, who has started every game this year, reeling in a team-high four interceptions in the process.  Up front, look out for transfer end Jason Fanaika; the big senior, originally from Utah State, maybe the next in a line of up-front starters who eventually transition to life in the NFL.

That just leaves one final thing before putting a bow on my football coverage for the year -- a final prediction for tomorrow's game.  The tale of the tape is as follows:

My 2015 record: 11-1. Against the spread: 6-5. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -1.27 pts/gm
Line as of Thursday @ 7pm - CU +16.5, O/U 49

Neither team has much to play for.  The Utes are eliminated from title game contention, as they lose the tiebreaker with whoever emerges from the USC/UCLA game, and the Buffs... well, any thought of that miracle bowl berth died last week in Pullman.  That just leaves pride, which gives me hope that this will be just another in the line of close games between Colorado and Utah.  Oh, the Buffs will still lose, there is no doubt there, but I think they should cover with enough of a fight that there's still meaningful possessions in the fourth quarter.

UU 23 - CU 14


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