Utah (3-2, 0-2) hosts an NFL team Stanford (5-0, 3-0) this Saturday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Cardinal escaped victorious in a close game at home against Washington after having lost a heartbreaker to the Huskies the year before. For the Utes, this matchup against a top-5 Stanford will be incredibly difficult. Stanford will certainly be the toughest test the Utes have faced this season.
On Paper, Utah and Stanford don't look terribly different: Utah/Stanford both average 39 pts/game. Utah/Stanford pass for 286/198 yds/game. Utah/Stanford rush for 195/210 yds/game. On Defense, Utah/Stanford surrender an average of 26/21 pts/game. Utah/Stanford give up 274/260 yds/game through the air. Utah/Stanford hold opponents to 131/111 yds/gm on the ground. Given those numbers, you might think these teams are evenly matched. Most folks will agree that Stanford passes the eyeball test. Utah...maybe in some places. The prevailing thought among Utah fans is that Utah actually matches up better with Stanford than against a team like UCLA. While UCLA was fast and athletic all over the field, Stanford is athletic, but emphasize size and power first, and (presumably) speed second. Utah is also a big physical team that isn't as fast or as athletic as UCLA, but still hung within 7 points despite being +5 in the turnover margin. The hope, for Utah fans, is that Utah's big physical fronts can hold serve with Stanford's, and that turnovers or other factors can give Utah an edge.
The 3rd Down Story
In Utah's last two games, they are a combined horrible 3-27 (11%) on 3rd down conversions, which has dropped them to 31% on the season. Only 18 teams are worse. That statistic is particularly remarkable when you consider that Utah is 26th in the country in yards/rush (Wait what!? I was shocked too), 17th in yards/pass completion, and 24th in yards/pass atempt. Of the teams that average 5+ yards/rush (and there are probably 40-50 of them), only Kentucky has a lower 3rd down % than Utah (See Utah at 5.1 yds/rush and ~31% 3rd downs). Similarly, of the teams that average 8+ yards / pass attempt (again, probably 40-50 teams), Utah has the lowest 3rd down % in NCAA (See Utah at 8.7 yds/pass attempt and ~31% 3rd downs). The takeaway point: For Utah's average yards/rush and yards/pass, they are underperforming on 3rd downs. Stanford's defense is allowing 3rd downs at a 32% rate, ranking them 33 in NCAA in that category. My guess is Utah falls somewhere near this mark Saturday. If Utah wants to win, they will have to be closer to a 50% clip.
Pace of Play
Utah is right about the middle of the NCAA pack (#50) in time between plays (24.3 seconds). Stanford is among the slowest paced teams in the NCAA (#117) averaging 29.5 seconds between plays. Utah's four previous opponents (excluding Weber St.) average time between snaps (seconds) was 18.9 (BYU, #3), 21.3 (UCLA, #16), 23.3 (USU, #38), and OSU (25.8, #70). In comparison to BYU's pace, that is almost an extra 10 seconds per snap for the defense to make it's calls and figure out coverage and blitz packages. But will it matter? Stanford doesn't do a lot of fancy. They line up and smash you in the mouth. An extra 10 seconds won't matter if the line of scrimmage is already 7 yards downfield before first contact. If Utah's rush defense can keep Stanford from running all over them and force them to pass, the slower pace of play could work in Utah's favor.
Key For UtahNo Hot Pockets.
Stanford's defense is loaded with future NFL players, particularly at linebacker and defensive line, where the Cardinal boast perhaps the best front 7 in college football. While Stanford's defensive numbers don't match their impressive numbers from last year (at least to this point in the season), anyone who has seen them play knows their defense is relentless and ferocious (see: "Three Washington State Cougar QBs Broken in One Game"). Utah's offensive tackles Poutasi and Aiono struggled mightily with the likes of ferocious UCLA speed rushers Anthony Barr and Myles Jack. This week doesn't get much easier (if any) against Shayne Skov and company. Poutasi, in particular has struggles with speed guys on the left side. If Poutasi and Aiono can't give Wilson more time in the pocket than he had against UCLA, it's going to be a long night for Utah.
Pass, Pass, and Pass Some More
Washington's most effective play against Stanford was a pass into the flats that was almost a guaranteed 5-8 yards all night long. There is legitimate question about whether or not Utah can execute such a play as effectively as Washington did. But if they can, that type of play should be used consistently. Utah ran that play against UCLA on their first possession of the game and Dres Anderson housed it 60+ yards for a Touchdown. Given Stanford's amazing front 7 and Utah's inability to establish a consistent run game this year, Utah would be wise to have a pass-heavy game plan PROVIDED that the tackles can give Wilson enough time to make the proper reads. With Kenneth Scott out for the year, Westlee Tonga's status in question, and Jake Murphy out for (probably) the season with a broken wrist, Utah's lone deep home-run threat is Dres Anderson. Denham and Fitzgerald will have to be consistent and keep drives alive with short yardage pass receptions. Dres Anderson will be blanketed and double-teamed all night long, while Stanford stacks the box. Utah will have to spread the field with screen plays and flat passes to keep Stanford from stacking the box and bringing zone blitz pressure all night long. With Murphy out, don't be surprised if the Utes give a youngster a chance to make some plays in the passing game.
Defense Getting Better?
To say Utah's defense was impressive against UCLA would be an understatement. Utah held UCLA almost 200 yards and 15+ pts under their average at the time. UCLA had punted a total of 3 times entering the season, and punted 7 times against the Utes. Utah held UCLA to lower than average numbers despite spotting them a +5 in the turnover margin. Stanford's offense is a much different animal. Of particular interest is what defensive packages Coach Sitake will put in place when Stanford uses their jumbo packages. It is hard to imagine Reilly and Orchard playing as down linemen during such situations. I expect to see some heavier defensive fronts at times, with Orchard and Reilly playing more of a LB position. If Utah can control the Stanford running game, they may be able to get pressure on Hogan on passing downs. Utah is tied for 3rd in sacks / game (3.6) and 17th nationally in tackes for loss / game (7.60). Jason Whittingham and Jared Norris have started to really emerge, and if Jacoby Hale is healthy, it's hard to imagine him not getting time given that he leads the team in sacks (0.75/gm).
Matchup Utah will win if it can (1) control Stanford's run game, (2) complete 50% of their 3rd down conversions on offense, and (3) win the turnover battle. Stanford wins if they score more than 30 points. Utah won't score more than that against this defense.
Matchup@ PICK: Stanford by 4
Utah will win if it can (1) control Stanford's run game, (2) complete 50% of their 3rd down conversions on offense, and (3) win the turnover battle. Stanford wins if they score more than 30 points. Utah won't score more than that against this defense.