SALT LAKE CITY — Stephanie Pelton is the Utah reporter for utezone.com and knows as much about the Utah football program as anyone. Given the gravity of Saturday's matchup, we asked Pelton nine questions regarding how Utah looks heading into its matchup against BYU.
How much hangover is there on the team after losing to Utah State? What is the attitude of the team and coaches this week?
Through the years, Utah has been known to inexplicably drop games that they shouldn't lose. Historically these losses have served as wake-up calls, and the results following such a loss are usually positive. So to expect Utah's best shot would not be unreasonable.
Utah is generally very good at handling the mental aspects of these types of games, turning anger and disappointment into something positive going into the next week. The best example of this was the puzzling 27-0 loss at UNLV in 2007, which by all accounts, fueled the Utes' run through the rest of that season, which carried over into their Sugar Bowl season.
Is the BYU game still a big deal for players at Utah and for the fans? Has the attitude toward the rivalry game changed since Utah joined the Pac-12?
Anyone on the Utah side who claims the BYU game isn't a big deal probably isn't being forthcoming. However, it’s also true that the outcome carries far less meaning in the current state of college football. No question that a loss to BYU still stings, but it no longer precludes Utah from achieving its ultimate goals — to win the Pac-12 South, then the Pac-12 conference championship.
Bragging rights and perhaps some recruiting implications are all that remain, but in the larger scheme of things, the weight of the rivalry from the Utah side is unquestionably diminished.
Ute coaches aren't tipping their hand on which quarterback will start against BYU. What's the best reason to start John Hays and what is the best reason to start Travis Wilson? What do you think coaches will ultimately do?
Jon Hays is battle-tested and the Ute coaching staff knows what they're going to get from this quarterback. When the bullets are flying, Hays leaves it all out on the field, and the team knows they will always get his best effort, whatever result that brings. The team is drawn to that quality and they'll follow suit. However, to expect simply a gutsy effort this year from Hays would be remiss. Hays has worked incredibly hard to improve his passing game and is a much more effective quarterback than last season. He could surprise the Utes' next few opponents, should they take him lightly, or judge by last season's film alone.
Kyle Whittingham has already called Travis Wilson the future of Utah football, and many are anxious for the Wilson era to begin. Wilson is a natural talent with every physical tool one might desire in a DI quarterback. Wilson is cool under pressure, versatile and a relative unknown for opponents in the near future, which might be his biggest positive at the moment. The only thing Wilson lacks is inexperience and perhaps the ability to lead the team under somewhat adverse conditions. Both things will surely come for Wilson, but this team is more likely to follow Hays into battle given that they've already been down that road with him before.
Look for Jon Hays to start, with a package of offensive plays designed for Wilson, much as the Utes have done already this season.
What led to Utah's offensive struggles against the Aggies and how are coaches addressing those struggles this week?
Most people were surprised by Utah's lack of offense against Utah State, including the team itself. Utah very much respected Utah State's defense, but still felt confident in their game plan and offensive personnel heading into Logan. Two things combined for the end result: a better than expected Utah State defense and a disappointing showing from Utah's offensive line.
The latter point in particular was troubling — as the Utes expected they might not match up with Pac-12 teams up front — likely felt it their offensive play would be adequate, especially for non-conference play.
For Utah's offensive line to show as poorly as it did Friday night reveals a glaring weakness in a team that is otherwise on level with most Pac-12 teams. With talent like John White in the backfield, it is no surprise that the Ute offense would revolve around the run game. The general thought in the Utah camp is that there was simply not enough push from the Ute offensive line to spring the run game, which led to other problems. Without its bread and butter, Utah was left to other devices such as the passing game, which has not been the team's strong suit of late.
The Utes will look to be creative with personnel in order to combat weaknesses at the offensive line, such as integrating the tight ends into the mix-up front, or adding a fullback element to help on pass protect.
Offensive line issues notwithstanding, the Utes feel that most of what went wrong at Utah State is very much solvable and came down to a lack of execution and missed assignments. Frustrated by the obvious mental letdowns, the Utes seem very much aware of what needs to be fixed. Knowing and doing are two different things, however, and much remains to be seen for the Utes.
Defensive secondary has always been a strength for Utah. How has it dealt with the loss of Brian Blechen and who will step in for Eric Rowe?
Any time this Utah team is without Brian Blechen, it is a weakened team, with no disrespect to his very solid stand-in Quade Chappuis. When the lights come on, Blechen just has a nose for the ball and his sixth sense can't be replaced. So far, due to quality of opponents, the Utes haven't been hurt too badly by his absence, which will likely change going into the rivalry game with BYU.
Losing both Rowe and Blechen for this game is a tough obstacle for the Utes to overcome, but Ute defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake has a methodology for distribution of reps throughout camps and the season that allows his younger, lesser-known players to be very prepared for these types of situations. Safety is unquestionably Utah's thinnest defensive position unit and in Kyle Whittingham's defense, safety is perhaps the most complex and difficult to master.
The next Ute safeties in line are intelligent, quick, athletic and talented but are not battle tested, and there is no way to predict how they might react in a big-time, emotionally fueled, nationally televised game.
Walk-on wide receiver-turned safety, Tyron Morris-Edwards and Terrell Reese were neck and neck for the backup spot through fall camp, and either could realistically get the start at free safety in place of the injured Rowe.
Both will be solid stand-ins, but inexperience may get the better of them in this contest. Morris-Edwards has great natural instincts and Reese is extremely assignment-sound and both have potential to make up for mistakes with big play ability. Look for Morris-Edwards to get the nod Saturday with Reese right there waiting in the wings should things not go well early in the contest.
Utah's front seven is thought to be among the best in the nation. How good are these guys and who should cause BYU problems besides Star Lotulelei?
Unquestionably, the Ute defensive line is one of the best in the nation, and the linebackers have huge potential and upside. However, to date, the group as a whole has underachieved. To be fair, the unit is extremely young and relatively inexperienced. The linebackers boast a single senior in Dave Fagergren, who walked on the team and worked his way to a starting role. While junior Trevor Reilly is officially listed as the starting stud linebacker, he has, and will continue to spend his time on the line at defensive end.
With Reilly's versatility and the relative inactivity of the backers thus far, BYU could expect to see Reilly back in the stud linebacker role more than on the line Saturday. The linebackers boast an embarrassment of speed, talent and athleticism and much is expected from this group. Once the light bulb comes on for this group, look out.
On the line, redshirt freshman Viliseni Fauonuku has been a huge, pleasant surprise behind Star Lotulelei at defensive tackle, and he is proving to be a force in his own right in the middle. The Kruger brothers looked forward to having a big year in David's final, senior season. While both have been solid, neither has made the impact they had hoped, so the BYU rivalry game might be the spark, or catalyst to seeing either or both of these Utah natives break out.
Nate Fakahafua has been Utah's most disruptive defensive player, and the Utes will pull out the steps to pressure Cougar quarterbacks. Look for Kalani Sitake to once again be creative and disguise where the Ute pressure is coming from, and look for Fakahafua, in particular, to play a huge role in that scheme.
Who are the primary playmakers on Utah's offense that could cause BYU trouble?
Utah's focus under Brian Johnson has been to spread the ball around to its plethora of playmakers, which hasn't exactly come to fruition yet. While that may be true, Utah has the personnel and on any given day, any one of them could step up.
Tight end Jake Murphy had a big performance against Northern Colorado with six catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns, while fellow end David Rolf had two catches for 46 yards versus Utah State. With five capable tight ends on the roster, this group is a match-up nightmare for any defense, and the ends could end up being Hays' security blanket on Saturday. Murphy in particular could cause BYU fits, but the Utes have plenty of other weapons at their disposal should the Cougars key in too heavily on this group.
DeVonte Christopher has a knack for making the big play at dramatic moments, and Dres Anderson is emerging, while the 6-foot-3 Ken Scott makes for a nice target against the smaller corners on the outside. The Utes have effective personnel all the way down the line, but whether or not the Utes have the ability to get the ball into their hands remains in question, given the breakdowns occurring at the line of scrimmage with the offensive line.
Utah will win the game if ... ?
Utah will need to start quickly on offense, which is a tall order for a squad who notoriously starts slowly. Brian Johnson's early play-calling will be crucial to setting the offensive tone of the game. Utah must jump ahead early and ride the momentum and energy of the home crowd.
Utah will also need offensive line to step up and provide running lanes for the Ute backs, which is the heart of the Utah offense. The Utah defense has focused on creating more turnovers, and it will need to do exactly that for a Utah offense that is limping along behind poor offensive line play.
The front seven need to button up and stop the run and essentially take control of the game at the line of scrimmage. Pressure from the defensive line will help alleviate weaknesses and concerns behind them, and sacks and tackles for loss will help win the field position battle.
Utah's defensive line play will be key to any success Utah may have. Utah will need to win the turnover battle to have a chance, and big plays from its special teams units will certainly play a very large role in a Ute victory.
Veteran corners Mo Lee and Ryan Lacy need to turn in lock-down performances and help secure BYU receivers in order to help out the young safeties behind them. Both have shown good instincts for jumping routes, but usually can't hold onto the ball to complete interceptions. While turnovers would be a plus, these two Ute corners must have huge performances against larger BYU receivers.
Regardless of which quarterback starts for Utah, it is imperative that they make good decisions, limit mistakes and play within themselves and avoid trying to do too much — a tall task in an emotional rivalry game. Both will need to manage emotions and stick to the game plan, which should be fairly conservative, with timely shots down the field peppered in for good measure.
The Ute quarterbacks can ill afford to take sacks or hold onto the ball too long in the pocket, which result in unfavorable third-and-long situations. The Utes don't need huge numbers from their quarterback, but do need to be effective on third downs and efficient in the red-zone. The Utes need good ball distribution and a solid running game in order to have success Saturday.
Utah will lose the game if ... ?
Utah will lose the game if it fails to stop the run, and if its talented, but inexperienced secondary fail to manage their emotions, resulting in big mistakes and big plays. Turnovers may not doom BYU in this game, but they will certainly hamper the Utes.
Giving up easy points or setting up short fields for the BYU offense will be disastrous, as the Utes will struggle to come back from a serious deficit. Utah linebackers could be exposed in the middle of the field with the BYU passing game, and BYU tight ends could come up big against Utah's young linebackers.
Utah struggled with containment issues against a mobile Utah State quarterback, and Taysom Hill could find room to the outside of the Utah defense and a lack of assignment-sound football on defense could spell big trouble for the Utes.
If the offensive line repeats its Utah State performance against BYU, the Utes can't expect to mount any type of rushing attack, rendering it one-dimensional and having to depend on a passing game that isn't yet established.
Not known to blitz or bring much pressure, BYU typically relies on its front three or four to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks, and if Utah succumbs to a three- or four-man rush at the line of scrimmage, it could spell a long day for the Ute offense.
If BYU has any measure of success applying pressure with three or four defensive linemen, it would create a worst-case scenario for Utah and potentially open things up for the BYU secondary to have a big day.