It may be the biggest game we aren’t talking about this summer.
When we last saw the Utah Utes they were dismantling an Alabama team that was in a national title hunt right up to the SEC Championship game. Utah in 2008 was undefeated, with quality wins over Michigan, Oregon State, TCU, BYU and the aforementioned Crimson Tide. They finished the season ranked #2, and with a sizable chip on their shoulder over not getting an opportunity to prove themselves BCS Championship worthy.
That is what they were. Let’s look at what they are now.
Utah comes into 2009 filling a lot of holes. Gone are 11 starters, including seven players who earned All-Mountain West Conference honors following Utah’s 13-0 run (five were first-teamers). The departed included MWC offensive POY in QB Brian Johnson, special teams POY in PK/P Louie Sakoda and stand-out pass rusher Paul Kruger who left after his R-sophomore year and became a second round pick of the Baltimore Ravens. While there seems to be some consensus that Utah is mostly reloading with talent, MWC writers picked the Utes to finish third in their conference, behind TCU and BYU.
The cupboards are hardly bare in Salt Lake City, though we might not learn a lot about Utah from their first two games. The Utes open the season hosting typically soft Utah State, then go on the road at equally soft San Jose State. The bottom line: on the road at Oregon, in the Autzen Stadium environment is where Utah’s newest starters will be getting their first real taste of nationally ranked opposition.
Oregon’s offense vs. Utah’s Defense
This could be a colossal match-up. The strength of Utah’s defense is the play of the linebackers. Stevenson Sylvester (#10, 6-2, 230-lb., Sr.) is a first-team pre-season MWC selection, and he might be the best linebacker in the conference. He’ll team up with senior Mike Wright (#20, 6-2, 235-lb.) to form a formidable run-stopping duo. Oregon gets few breaks along Utah’s front line either. Yes, the Ducks caught a break with Kruger’s bolt to the NFL, but defensive ends Koa Misi (#41, 6-3, 263-lb., Sr.) and Derrick Shelby (#90, 6-3, 250-lb., So.) are expected to excel at their positions. Safeties Joe Dale (#12, 5-100, 200-lb., Sr.) and Robert Johnson (#17, 6-2, 200-lb., Sr.) are considered by some to be the best duo in the MWC.
Utah took apart Alabama last season with a disruptive scheme along the defensive front seven. It was an impressive barrage of stunts and blitzes that resulted in eight sacks. Utah clearly looked to take advantage of a Crimson Tide line that became a liability when missing all-world tackle Andre Smith due to suspension. With Oregon’s young O-line being the Duck's biggest question mark, it shouldn’t surprise us to see Utah trying to penetrate along the line and blitzing often. That may be effective, or disastrous. Chip Kelly will be prepared for Utah’s defensive pressure. Any gambles taken by Utah’s defenders will be countered with misdirection, and big plays could result. This is a game where Jeremiah Masoli’s versatility as a dangerous runner and passer should make the difference. If the Utes can manage to slow down LeGarrette Blount (that's a 6-2, 240-lb. IF), look for tight end Ed Dickson and receiver Jeff Maehl - two veterans who play big in big games - to make critical plays off Oregon's short to medium passing game.
Oregon’s defense versus Utah’s Offense
We’ll say it repeatedly this year. Inexperienced QBs don’t usually fare well at Autzen. Boise State’s passed the test last season. Many before him have not. Oregon could face a duo of quarterbacks against Utah. The likely starter is junior Corbin Louks (#19, 6-0, 200-lb.). Louks played in nine games last season and finished third on the team with 223 rushing yards. The challenge for Louks is he has only attempted 15 passes in two seasons at Utah. Yes, he can run. It’s less certain that he can pass his way to a win. It’s a sure bet that Nick Allioti’s defense will look to make him do just that.
If Louks can’t get the job done, we may see Terrance Cain (#7, 5-11, 185-lb., Jr.). Cain is a highly regarded JC transfer who led, or came close to leading, most significant NJCAA passing categories in 2008. So one runs, the other throws, and from some Utah spring game notes, we learn that neither appeared to outshine the other.
Matt Asiata (#4, 5-11, 230-lb., Sr.) leads the Utes’ rushing attack. He had 146 carries for 707 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2008. He’s not scary, but he’s a first-team All-MWC selection. Asiata is a load to bring down and can slug out some tough yards. Utah’s receiving corp took a big hit, losing the top three targets from 2008. David Reed (#16, 6-0, 190-lb., Sr.) may be looking for his time to shine. Senior Aiona Key (#9, 6-4, 195-lb., Sr.) will share receiving duties with Reed, though he caught just a single pass for 19 yards last year. Forget about weaknesses along the Utes offensive line. They return two all-MWC starters. Guards Caleb Schlauderaff (#72, 6-4, 300-lb., Jr.) and Zane Taylor (#77, 6-2, 300-lb., Jr.), and tackle Zane Beadles (#68, 6-4, 305-lb., Sr.) will be a huge test for Oregon’s relatively green defensive line.
Utah’s O-line versus Oregon’s front seven should be an all-out war. The Ducks may lack star-power along the D-line (at least after Will Tukuafu), but they have considerable depth. That could be a key against Utah’s quality offensive line in a game that might be in doubt well into the fourth quarter. Oregon will need to prepare for both a running and a passing QB, and be ready to adjust to different personnel on the fly. Utah seems to be caught lacking experience at the QB position, and with Oregon’s defense seemingly improving, it should be advantage Ducks in this match-up.
Odds and Ends
It’s hard to pin down many intangible advantages either way. Both teams will be breaking in new kickers and punters. Both have big-play athletes on special teams. Both teams are breaking in some new coaches on both sides of the ball…at the coordinator level in both cases for Utah. Field position and special teams execution will be critical. Neither team can afford to be missing 35-yard field goals.
I think it is to Oregon’s benefit that they’re facing this Utah team 1) at home, and 2) early in the season. The tipping point, I think, comes down to continuity and leadership. Oregon has it, Utah might not only a couple games into the 2009 season. Jeremiah Masoli returns as Oregon’s clear leader. He’s the heart and soul of the Oregon team. He makes great things happen. That player last season for Utah was QB Brian Johnson. Now Johnson’s leadership has to be replaced, something that rarely happens overnight. For all the talent lost in 2009, Utah may miss Johnson’s leadership and play making more. Utah's defense will hold Oregon under their scoring average, but the Ducks will find ways to get the one-on-one match-ups, in space, that make Chip Kelly's spread click. Oregon's defense should continue their coming out party against a Utah offense which is inexperienced at quarterback and receiver.
Oregon 31, Utah 20