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Getting to know the Utah Utes: Q&A with Mountain West Connection

We haven't spent a whole lot of time talking about the Utes, so we caught up with Jeremy of Mountain West Connection and asked him a few questions regarding Utah's team this season.

1.  Utah has looked fairly pedestrian against two not very good teams (USU, SJSU).  Is this just little motivation against terrible opponents, or is there something to suggest that this team isn't as good as everyone thinks it is?

It is a little bit of both.  The Utes are slightly overrated and are getting the benefit because of their 2008 season.  The reason to be concerned about Utah is that their cornerbacks are not as good as last year.  Both Brice McCain and Sean Smith were both drafted in the NFL.  The Utah corners are expected to play tight man coverage with no safety help, and these replacement corners RJ Stanford and Brandon Burton so far are not up to the challenge. Plus their alleged sub 4.5 speed seems to be inflated becaus these guys were getting beat by Utah State receivers.

The Utes are breaking in a new starting quarterback in JUCO transfer Terrance Cain who has been pretty good but all his throws have been quick slants to David Reed and Jereme Brooks and let them do the work.  Cain has been hesitant to run the ball when the Utes run an option read, but instead hands the ball of each time and that lets the defense crowd the middle.  Also, Terrance Cain has yet to show he can stretch the field and has been inaccurate on the deep ball.  I am unsure if offensive coordinator Dave Schramm is set on running a vanilla offense or will unleash a new wrinkle as the season progresses to catch the opposing team off guard.

The strength of this team is the defensive line and the offfensive line, all of the skill or speed positions are question marks because of lack of talent or new players trying to field the void; the only exception is RB Matt Asiata.  Oregon is a team that could exploit the Utah secondary which is by far the worst unit of the team, becuase if Jeremiah Masoli is able to scramble and by time the Utah secondary could be in for a long day.

Oh and did I mention that Utah Senior kicker Ben Vroman is being replaced by walk-on Joe Phillips.
2.  Starting RB Matt Asiata has been listed as questionable for the game.  Is he likely to play and, if not, how will his loss affect the Ute offense?

Utah has a policy of only discussing injuries on Monday, but as of today he was wearing the non-contact yellow jersey to protect his shoulder; which obviously is not good for Utah.  He is officially listed as questionable but Asiata is a beast and I would go out on a limb and say he will play.  If Asiata is not able to play the biggest omission from the offense is the 'Asiata Package' that puts Asiata in the shotgun where there are a ton of possibilites in that formation.  So far that formation has yielded all of his touchdowns, but in that package Asiata has the option of running up the middle, handing of to a back, run the option with a receiver in motion, or he will pass.  When not in that formation Asiata runs up the middle and is big enough to break tackles and wear down a defense which is huge in the fourth quarter.

If Asita is not able to play then look for Utah to plug in Eddie Wide who is a small and very fast running back, and then Sausan Shakerin who is built more like Matt Asata and is able to wear down defenses.  Shakerin would get more of the carries since he is similar to Asiata then Eddie Wide is, but Shakerin is a redshirt freshman and quite green.
3.  Maybe the biggest difference in the Utes this season is new quarterback Terrance Cain.  What should Duck fans expect from him?

Terrance Cain is a similar player to former QB Brian Johnson.  Now that is in no way to mean Cain is as good as Johnson, but their game is similar.  Cain does not have the strongest off arm and has not yet attempted to go deep often, but when he has those throws have not been too accurate.  Cain also is able to take off and run the ball, and against San Jose State he broke out with 69 yards.  Look for Cain to throw quick slant passes which has been his go to throwing play, and has been very successfull with that play.  Cain is careful with the ball and has only one pick on the year in sixty-one attempts.

The one thing that Cain should do is run more, because he is a great athlete however if Matt Asiata is out he defintely should run more.  The one play that Utah runs a lot is a read option play where Cain has the choice to either hand the ball of or run the ball.  In the San Jose State game Cain would never take the ball and run which allowed the Spartans to crowd the middle.  Look for that to be fixed where Cain will hadn the ball of a few times, but then once the defense is sucked in he will fake that hand off and take off to the edges.
4.  The following quote is from Utah coach Kyle Whittingham "We're not making impact plays (on defense). Impact plays to us are sacks and takeaways, and we're not getting that done".  Tell us a bit about the Utah defense, bearing in mind that Oregon's offense has struggled mightily thus far this season.

The defense returned seven starters from last year, but as mentioned earlier the corner backs are the key to the defense, they are not covering well in the man scheme that the Utes run which allows for big plays.  Last year the corners were able to lock down any receiver and allow Safety Robert Johnson to roam the secondary and make plays.  The defense has not been terrible but like Coach
Whitt said they have not made the big plays like last year.  Part of that is that preseason all-conference DE Koa MIsi injured his back in camp and missed the Utah State game and played sparingly in the San Jose State game.  Koa Misi is now fully healthy and expected to play a full starters slate.  By having Koa Misi back the Utes will have their normal defensive set with each player playing their natural position.

The defensive line is the strength of the Utah defense, and the Oregon offensive line is inexperienced and not that good.  I expect the Utah line to get pressure on Mosali for most of the day.  Also, the linebacking corp is stacked as well and it starts with Stevenson Sylvester who is a beast at linebacker who makes plays and is a big hitter and blitzes quite often  So far this year the Utes have not been as dominate against the run or the pass, but have been just above average.  I think the Utah defense has been complasive by playing inferior opponents and will be jacked to play this game and will come intensity that will match their play.  Expect Utah to have their best defensive effort and create a few turnovers.
5.  In my opinion, the Mountain West is clearly the class of the non-AQ conferences, and probably better than the Big East and ACC.  They probably deserve an automatic bid, even moreso if they were to add Boise State as a 10th member (why hasn't this happened yet?).  How frustrating is it knowing that it is nearly impossible for a MWC team to play for a national title, even though they have shown to be on par with at least some of the AQ conferences?

The expansion talk with Boise is something I have written about extensively and really expect the invite to come this summer.  The reasoning behind that is that the four year evaluation cycle ends in the 2011 season, and it takes a full year for a school to change conferences.  That would give Boise State three years in the WAC and one in the Mountain West, however the record and rankings that Boise received while in the WAC would then count toward the MWC.  Getting to a national title game itself would be a huge landmark for any non-AQ school, but the real frustrating thing about that is the issue of schedules because outsiders say only Utah, BYU, and TCU are any good.  However the bottom of the league is stronger then people think, just look at last year when Wyoming beat Tennessee on the road, UNLV beat Iowa State and Arizona State.  I know those are not world beaters but those opponents were all in the same tier within their respective league, and when the SEC or Big 12 is supposed to better from top to bottom then these wins should not happen.
Really what is the difference then last year with Washington, Indiana, Northwestern, Duke, Mississippi State, and Duke; these teams plus others are at the bottom of their leagues and are no better then the bottom of the Mountain West.  Also, this year there is a real possibility that the top three teams in the MWC could finish higher then the Big East champ which could be unranked or the top two teams could finish ahead of the ACC champ.  What is a shame is that a team could go 8-4 in a medicore conference and then are awarded with the near 20 million dollars that go with the BCS game while the champ of the MWC can go 11-1 and be left out despite being ranked higher.