The slumping University of Utah football team has lost three consecutive games, all of them at home, all of them by lopsided scores. Heaven knows what will happen when it ventures out on the road, which is exactly what it's doing this weekend.
The Utes left today for Fort Collins, where they will meet Colorado State Saturday at noon in a locally televised game. The chances of the Utes pulling out of their recent slide aren't good.The Rams are virtually the same team that last year slashed and trashed the Utes 50-10 with shocking ease and efficiency in Salt Lake City. Indeed, CSU is probably a better team this year.
The Rams are 3-2 overall (2-0 in Western Athletic Conference play), but that includes two losses to nationally ranked teams - Arizona State and Arkansas, by identical 31-20 scores. They narrowly missed upsetting Arkansas on the road last week. Trailing 24-20 in the fourth quarter, they drove to the Arkansas goal line but failed to crack the end zone.
In the meantime, the Utes, after winning their first two games, have lost their last three and still the opponents seem to get better each week. Perhaps the best the Utes can hope for is that the Rams will look ahead one week to their game against BYU. But CSU Coach Earle Bruce isn't likely to allow that.
When new Utah Coach Ron McBride vowed at the WAC meetings last August to make the Utes tougher, Bruce was one of the few who believed him, even though the Utes' reputation for toughness in recent years has been quite to the contrary. "I took that to heart because I knew he meant business," says Bruce.
The Ute defense has become significantly tougher this season; it will be nothing like the unit that allowed CSU running back Tony Alford to rush for 310 yards last year. "Utah is as good as any defense we've played so far," says Bruce.
The Rams possess the leading rusher in the WAC, but his name is not Alford. Brian Copeland, a reserve last year, has rushed for 379 yards on 65 carries and averaged 5.8 yards per carry this season. Copeland, a junior who had only 37 carries all last season, alternates regularly with Alford, who has rushed for 285 yards (5.1 per carry). Still another CSU player, fullback Todd Yert, has rushed for 259 yards, and his backup, Paul Macrenateo, has rushed for 168 yards.
As you might guess, the Rams rank first in the WAC (and 10th nationally) in rushing. They average 262 rushing yards, 436 total yards and 31 points per game.
And Alford, who has been slowed this season by injuries, is just barely rounding into form. Or was. He sprained his right ankle against Arkansas and couldn't play the fourth quarter. He hasn't practiced this week and is listed as questionable for the Utah game. Before the ankle sprain, Alford was just recovering from a pulled hamstring he suffered on the opening day of training camp.
The Rams shuffle their running backs in and out of the game to maintain their relentless running attack. They do some of the same with quarterbacks Kevin Verdugo and Mike Gimenez. Verdugo, the better passer of the two, plays most of the time, but when the Rams reach the 30-yard line or thereabouts, Gimenez, the better runner, enters the game.
CSU ranks fourth in the WAC in total defense, allowing 351 yards per game (and 24 points). Linebacker Eric Tippeconnic has been in on 69 tackles this season, 28 solo. Free safety Andy Byrne has made 63 tackles, 37 solo.
"CSU is a real hard-nosed football team," says McBride. "They believe they're going to win. You can see it on film."