Reason number one to tune in for the Utes and the Aggies should be reason enough, it’s football, that counts, and is the only game on tv. If that’s not enough, I think I can scrounge up a couple other worthwhile reasons to at least keep an eye on this Beehive State battle.
For starters, it’s time people just start accepting Utah for what they are, which is a very solid football program. Last years 8-5 season was their first season without double digit wins since a 9-4 season in 2007, the year before they went out and went 13-0 and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to finish as the second ranked team in the entire country.
While there is no reason to think year’s Utes squad is going to do anything similar, there is reason to think they could definitely improve upon last years campaign.
While little could be taken from their 41-0 victory over Northern Colorado, it should still be noted, it WAS 41-0. In today’s day and age, we constantly see supposedly inferior teams giving the big boys all they want and then some, even upsetting them. What you want to see when playing an opponent like that is to go out, and quickly take care of business leaving no doubt. Utah did exactly that. The Utes defense surrendered just 114 yards on the night. Meanwhile, the offense was faced with 15 third downs, and including fourth down conversions, managed to pick up a first down on 12 of those occasions. Not too shabby, not even against the scout team defense.
On the other side, Utah State did something similar against Southern Utah. Southern Utah did beat UNLV and new FBS member Texas- San Antonio last season. Their 34-3 win came in spite of 10 penalties for 120 yards, but included holding the Thunderbirds to just 56 yards rushing on 27 carries.
So that sets the stage for the first true test for either team in 2012. For Utah State, it’s the first of many as they take on an ambitious schedule in 2012. Following the visit by Utah, the Aggies will travel to Wisconsin, Colorado State, BYU and WAC favorite Louisiana Tech before their season is over. Utah, meanwhile, has their annual (though that’s in peril) “Holy War” with BYU the following week.
Utah brings back nine starters from last year’s offense. Somehow the Utes managed to score 25 points per game, despite barely averaging over 300 yards per game. The problem seemed to rest at quarterback, and protecting the quarterback. The loss of Jordan Wynn to injury proved more than Utah was ready to handle at the position. Utah averaged just 173 yards a game through the air, more than 60 yards less than in 2010, and their lowest total since 1984. Wynn returns to reclaim his starting spot, but highly touted freshmen Travis Wilson may be a better insurance policy than Joe Hays was a year ago.
Either way, the passing game should improve with the return of the entire interior of the offensive, and more importantly, the top six receivers from a season ago. Among those six returning is DeVonte Christopher.
The running game is in good hands with the aforementioned return of three interior starters on the line, but more critically, the return of senior running back John White. White, a junior college transfer a year ago, is one of the more talented backs in the country, even if odds are good you haven’t heard of him. He rushed for over 1500 yards a year ago, with 15 scores to match. He picked right up where he left off in last Thursdays win by rushing for 119 yards, averaging five a carry.
Utah’s run game will take on a Utah State defense that was stout against the run a year ago, but must replace key members of that unit, including NFL draft choice Bobby Wagner and his 147 tackles, which included 11.5 for a loss.
Last season, led in part by Bobby Wagner and fellow linebacker Kyle Gallagher, Utah State made their first bowl appearance since 1997 and this year will seek their first bowl victory since 1993. Last year’s Aggies won 7 games, but remember took Auburn to the wire (a game many will argue they should have won) before losing 42-38. The Aggies hung the 4th highest yardage total Auburn surrendered all season.
They also lost by just three on the road to BYU, and only by seven to Louisiana Tech, and by one to Ohio in the bowl game. Coach Gary Andersen has done good things with this Aggies team, and this is not the typical Aggie team Utah is used to seeing. The Aggies are certainly in a position to end a 12 game losing streak in this series.
The key of course will be Utah State’s ability to run against the Utah defense. While they lost their top two rushers from a year ago, the Aggie offense does return sophomore quarterback Chuckie Keeton (293, 4 TD) and senior running back Kerwynn Williams (542, 3 TD) . However, last Thursday it was sophomore Joe Hill who stole the show, rushing for 110 yards and three scores against Southern Utah. Last seasons version of the Aggies was held under four yards a carry just once all season, by Lousiana Tech, and topped 200 yards in 9 (199 against Nevada) of their 12 games.
Utah of course is known for stingy run defense, having allowed just 114 and 112 yards per game in the last two seasons, allowing just 3.2 yards per carry in each. Last year only three teams ran for more than 131 yards against the Ute defense, and nobody topped 185. In fact, only two teams even managed to average at least four yards per carry.
Utah returns three starters from that defensive line, including senior Star Lotulelei, a 6’4, 325 lb run plugger in the middle. The Utes are however very young at linebacker. They only have one senior expected to receive playing time, and a redshirt freshmen and true sophomore wman two of the linebacker spots. How those two replace Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez, who combined to make 205 tackles a year ago, will go a long way to determining if Utah State is able to hang around.
A spot of hope though for Utah State came in what they saw from Keeton on Thursday night. He completed 22 out of 26 passes for over 300 yards. As a team, last year Utah State didn’t have a game all year where they completed as many passes (backup Adam Kennedy was 1 for 1 against Southern Utah), and didn’t throw for more than 255 yards all season. So if the Aggies can get a passing game to help the running game out, Utah State could very well snap a 12 game losing streak to their intrastate rivals.