Preview – Utah

It must be tough to watch the Utah game film for the Colorado coaching staff.

The Utes, for the most part, are everything head coach Jon Embree and his coaching staff envision for the CU program:  a power rushing attack combined with a solid defense.

That, and Utah can finish games.

The Utes lost their first four games as a member of the Pac-12 Conference. The howls could be heard from Seattle to Tucson that the Utes were pretenders, and didn’t below in a Bowl Championship Series conference.

And now?

Utah has won four Pac-12 games in a row, including two on the road, to not only secure a bowl bid for the ninth consecutive season, but also remain in the hunt for the inaugural Pac-12 title game, and yes, a Pac-12 championship.

The road to Eugene (or perhaps, Palo Alto, if the Ducks can’t take care of business against Oregon State this weekend) is straight-forward for Utah. Defeat Colorado, then sit back and hope that Arizona State falls to Cal (not inconceivable – the Sun Devils have lost three in a row, and four of five, with rumors swirling that head coach Dennis Erickson will not return for the 2012 season), and that UCLA falls on the road to USC (very likely).

Since the Colorado/Utah game kicks off before either the Arizona State/Cal or UCLA/USC games, the Ute players will know, at kickoff on Friday afternoon, that they are still alive for the Pac-12 South title.

Just what Colorado needed … a motivated Utah team, with something to play for, and something to prove.

That being the case, one of the best “T.I.P.S.” for the Colorado/Utah game this Friday might just be … go shopping instead.

T – Talent

As noted, the Utah offense works the way the Colorado coaches want the Buff offense to work. The Utes have a power running game, led by junior college transfer John White, who ranks second in the Pac-12 and eighth in the nation in rushing, with 125.2 yards per game. White is currently third on the all-time single season rushing list at Utah, needing only 131 yards (and don’t think the Utah offensive line doesn’t know that number) to pass Carl Monroe and become the Utes’ all-time single season leading rusher.

All you really need to know about John White for this weekend’s game against Colorado … In games in which White has rushed for over 100 yards, the Utes are 7-0. When White has been held below 100 yards, the Utes are 0-4.

Simple math for the Colorado defense,  but stopping White is easier said than done. White, in his last four games, all Pac-12 victories, has rushed for 208 yards (Oregon State), 109 (v. Arizona), 167 (v. UCLA) and 186 (v. Washington State). The Colorado defense, which had at least been decent against the in recent years (perhaps due to a porous pass defense), is nonetheless ranked 97th in the nation in rushing defense, giving up almost 200 yards rushing per game.

Handing the ball off to White, and managing the offense (again, something the CU coaches had hoped for out of Tyler Hansen, who never really had the chance to fill that role this fall due to a lack of overall production in the offense), is junior quarterback Jon Hays.

When three-year starter (and, yes, former Colorado commit) Jordan Wynn went down for the season against Washington October 1st, Hays stepped in. The former Nebraska-Omaha quarterback has won four games in a row for the Utes, and five out of six overall. Hays’ numbers are not spectacular 87-0f-158 (55%) for 1,081 yards, with eight touchdown passes offset by seven interceptions.

Once again, though, it is fairly black-and-white for the Colorado defense … In Hays’ five wins, he has six touchdown passes and no interceptions. In those games, Utah went 15-for-16 in red zone opportunities (would it be rubbing salt in the wounds to note that Colorado is 118th in the nation in red zone defense?).

Speaking of defense, Utah has a very good one. (Again, not to belabor the point, but this is what Jon Embree and Co. envisioned as the Buffs’ blueprint for success this year).

Utah is 9th in the nation in rushing defense, led by senior middle linebacker Chaz Walker. A Phil Steele Mid-season All-Pac-12 first team linebacker, Walker is third in the conference in tackles, with 87 (the Buffs’ leading tackler, with an extra game played, is junior linebacker Jon Major, with 76 tackles).

Though Utah shuttles through nine defensive linemen, two are standouts. Both have started all 11 games – right end Derrick Shelby, who is second on the team in tackles for loss and sacks, amd nose tackle Star Lotelelei, has 34 tackles and seven tackles for loss, despite being double-teamed for most of the game.

The weakness of the Utah defense – if there is one in a unit which is ranked 28th in total defense and 20th in scoring defense, giving up less than 20 points per game – would be the secondary. The Utes are ranked 84th in the nation against the pass, with sophomore Brian Blechen the most intriguing story. A freshman All-American at safety last fall, Blechen moved to linebacker this spring, but has moved back to strong safety for the past seven games.

Even the special teams for Utah are good. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in kickoff coverage and kick return yardage defense (Colorado is 118th in the nation in kick returns, so the best hope here may be to wish for touchbacks).

Utah has also blocked four kicks (three punts and a field goal attempt) this season. The punter, Sean Sellwood, is three-for-three in converting fake punts this season. Against Washington State, Sellwood threw a 49-yard touchdown pass which was a game-changer in a game which the Utes utlimately prevailed in overtime, 30-27.

In short, there is little to point towards in matchups which favors Colorado.

Utah has a bruising offense, with a punishing runner. While the Buffs have had to deal with NFL caliber quarterbacks for much of the season, instead of runners, Colorado has been far from dominant in stopping the run this season.

When the Buffs have the ball, it could get ugly. Utah stops rushing attacks, and the only times Colorado has been successful on offense this season has come when the rushing attack has been effective. Putting the game on the shoulders of the Colorado passing attack has proven to be a losing formula for the Buffs this fall, and that is the unit upon which Colorado must rely on Friday.

I – Intangibles

There are no rabbits left in the hat for the Colorado coaching staff to pull out. Colorado hasn’t won on the road, and shows no signs of improving.

“We’ve talked about it every week about the opportunity that presents itself,” said CU head coach Jon Embree this week. “We’ve done special stuff for five or six games. They just have to play. At some point as a player, it is not about what the coaches are doing, you just have to out there and play.” 

But Colorado hasn’t come out and played for some time. It’s been two full years now since the Buffs have been within even two touchdowns of another team on the road. Last weekend, the Buff players were treated as if the trip to the Rose Bowl was their bowl game, and yet, after two series (and only three plays by the UCLA offense), Colorado was down, 14-0. Asked if his team had come out “flat”, Embree got defensive. “I don’t know about the term ‘flat.’ I don’t buy that,” said Embree. “Guys can say what they want, but we talked about it being their bowl game so if you come out flat for your bowl game, that says something about you. They got their work-out gear early, simulating like they were getting bowl gifts. We had In-N-Out Burger at the hotel on Friday night so trust me, we did all we could to let them feel special and understand that it is a special game and a great opportunity at the Rose Bowl. So if you say you came out flat, that says something about you, no one else but you. If you can’t be excited to go play in the Rose Bowl, you can’t be excited that you got gear, whether it is sweats, shoes, sweatshirts, you get to do all that stuff and you can’t go play? If you say you are flat, then that says a lot about you because believe me, we talked about that starting on Monday. It was going to be their bowl game. So if you can’t be excited about your bowl game, being in the Rose Bowl, no matter what the circumstances are, then you probably shouldn’t be playing football, plain and simple.”

Embree’s press conference quotes have generated a great deal of internet discussion. On one side, there are those who applaud Embree for telling the truth, and telling it like it is. Embree is not calling out specific players, but letting the world – and his team – know that he is not pleased with their work ethic and preparation. In the other camp are those who criticize Embree, stating that the team is a reflection of the coach, and that if the team isn’t ready to play, it is on the coaches to change that culture and attitude.

(Feel free to post your position in the comments, section, below).

Utah, meanwhile, has no such issues. Every intangible favors the Utes.

This Friday is Senior Day for 18 Utah seniors.

Utah is already bowl-eligible, with a possible Pac-12 title to play for.

The Utes have won four straight games in the Pac-12, including two road games.

And then there is the “chip on the shoulder” factor. While Colorado has assumed all along that it “belonged” in the Pac-12, Utah has not had that luxury. The Buffs, despite recent history, came to the Pac-12 from another BCS conference, the Big 12, and brought to the table a national championship, a Heisman Trophy winner, and the status of being one of the top 20 programs in college football history. Utah, meanwhile, has the reputation only for being a “BCS Buster” , an outsider forcing their way in.

Well, to be an outsider, you have to start outside. And Utah has been fighting its way upstream all season. Starting 0-4 in conference play just made it all the easier for the catcalls from other conference schools.

Utah would like nothing better than to add another Pac-12 notch to its belt, and are looking forward to the opportunity to show Colorado – and the rest of the Pac-12 – which of the two newcomers truly “belongs” in the new league.

P – Preparation / Schedule

The last two times Colorado has played a home game before heading out on the road to play a Friday game on the road, things haven’t worked out so well.

The 45-17 loss to Nebraska to end last season was disheartening, as it came after winning two games under interim head coach Brian Cabral, with the 5-6 Buffs still harboring hopes of a bowl bid.

The last Friday road loss before that was a disaster.  The 54-38 meltdown against Toledo. ‘Nuff said.

Utah, meanwhile, should have no problem with the short week. The Utes get to play at home, which is always an advantage in a short week. Plus, Utah already has a bowl bid sewn up, so they know that they will not be hanging up their cleats for the season come Saturday. In fact, if the Cal Bears can take out the Arizona State Sun Devils on Friday night, the Utes can sit back and watch USC take care of business against UCLA, freeing up Utah to be crowned as the inaugural Pac-12 South champion.

Even if Arizona State or UCLA win their games – and get to be the sacrificial lamb for Oregon in Eugene – Utah can finish the regular season on a Pac-12 best five game winning streak. The Utes can carry that momentum into their bowl game, where Utah has gone 6-1 in bowl games under Kyle Whittingham, including a Fiesta Bowl victory over Pittsburgh (2004 season) and a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama (to cap a perfect 13-0 season in 2008).

So, Utah has everything to play for – a possible title game, a win over its new “rival”, a five-game winning streak, a better bowl bid.

Colorado, meanwhile, has only one thing to play for – pride.

The Buffs also have a road losing streak to eliminate … but they have had that to play for all season, and all it has brought is more lopsided losses … and scorn.

S – Statistics

– Colorado leads the all-time series against Utah, 30-24-3, but the teams have not met since 1962;

– Before Utah won the last two games played between the teams (1961-62), Colorado had won eight straight games in the series (betweeen 1951-58);

– While the two schools agree on the overall record in the series, there is a discrepancy on how they got to that total. Colorado’s media release shows the tally at 16-9-1 in games played in Boulder; while Utah lists the tally at 15-10-1. At the same time, CU lists its record in Salt Lake City at 14-15-2, while the Utes have their home record at 14-13-2. The discrepancy, to an extent, involves two games – both Colorado victories – which Utah lists a “neutral site” games. The games at issue were played in 1910 and 1912. Utah lists both as neutral site games played in Denver, while there is no such notation in the CU media guide, which shows the 1910 game as a home game, and the 1912 game as a road game. Even accounting for the two neutral site games, there is still a discrepancy, as Utah would have the CU home record at 16-10-1, while CU has it at 16-9-1. Meanwhile, Utah would list its home record against CU at 14-14-2, while CU sees its disadvantage at 14-15-2. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? (I may send Dave Plati an email on this one, but I’ll wait until next week when the team is back in town);

– Colorado has played 18 previous Friday-after-Thanksgiving, accumulating a 5-13 record overall. Fifteen of the 18 games were against Nebraska (4-11), with the other three games played in 1894 (a victory over Colorado Mines); 1904 (a loss to Stanford in Denver); and 1915 (a loss to Washington). It should be noted that the two previous Friday-after-Thanksgiving games against present members of the Pac-12 were lost by a cumulative score of 79-0 …. uh-oh;

– The last time Colorado faced a team other than Nebraska to end the regular season was in the final season of the Big Eight, when the No. 9 CU Buffs defeated the No. 7 Kansas State Wildcats, 27-17, in Manhattan;

– Speaking of 1995 … There has been much made of LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas being ranked 1, 2 and 3 this week in the Associated Press poll, only the second time one conference has held the top three spots at once. The only other time, of course, came at the end of the 1971 season, when Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Colorado finished the season ranked 1,2, and 3, respectively. Now, about 1995 … recall that at the end of that season, four teams from the Big Eight – four teams which would go on to form 2/3 of the Big 12 North in 1996 – all finished the season ranked in the top ten. The final poll in 1995 had Nebraska at No. 1, Colorado at No. 5, Kansas State at No. 7, and Kansas at No. 9. Try that one on for size, SEC West!

– The new rivalry has been dubbed the “Rumble in the Rockies”. There will be a trophy to be awarded for the team which fares the best in the 11 sports in which both teams compete. The fiercest rivalry between the two teams is in skiing, where the two school have combined to take 15 of the 29 team titles since the sport went coed in 1983. Overall, Colorado has won 18 skiing national championships, to ten for Utah. Last season, Colorado won the national title in the NCAA championships in Stowe, Vermont. The second place team nationally last season? Utah.

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