The Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl is only days away, and Block U co-manager Shane Roberts took some time to answer some questions about the Utah Ute football team.
Josh Carvalho: Similar to Colorado State, Utah has had a major turnaround this year going from 5-7 a year ago to 8-4 this year. In your opinion, what has been the biggest factor in Utah's successful season in 2014?
Shane Roberts: A couple things, first increased depth. Utah had some playmakers come on campus that really improved the Utes. First and foremost, Devontae Booker solidified the offense by being a consistent weapon to rely on. Then when you add-in Kendal Thompson, Kaelin Clay, Gionni Paul, and many of the incoming freshmen, Utah was just much more talented this season, in all three phases. Then having relative health at key positions helped, losing Dres Anderson and Tevin Carter hurt this year, but the depth behind them helped fill that in.
Josh: In your opinion, did the Utes exceed preseason expectations?
Shane: They did, and I picked them to win 7 games. This team lost so many close games last year, many by one score, that eventually the odds had to bounce back in their favor. I didn't expect the defense to be as dominate as it was, and thankfully it was. The most interesting thing about this team was the fact they were 5-1 on the road this season, with wins at UCLA, Michigan, Oregon State and Stanford, while the only road loss was in overtime to Arizona State. While not all those teams were stellar, winning in those venues is tough.
Josh: Being a USC fan, I watch quite a bit of Pac-12 football and have seen the Utes play multiple times this year. Do you agree that running back Devontae Booker is the key to Utah offense?
Shane: He was the biggest key, but not the only key, in my opinion. The offensive line has improved dramatically this year. They gave Devontae some great holes to run through, and has been solid at pass blocking. Without a doubt though, Devontae puts the defense on notice, and helps the QB with play action.
Josh: Quarterback Travis Wilson is having a solid year this year with 17 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions, 12 less than last year. What has been the biggest factor in his turn around season?
Shane: The afore mentioned improvement of the o-line and the addition of Devontae Booker are huge reasons. But health would be another big factor. Wilson was battling some serious injury issues after the Stanford win last season. His hand was just shredded and didn't allow him to hold onto the ball comfortably, and then he had the season (almost career) ending concussion. Plus, his wide receivers are more consistent. Many of those interceptions lat year were due to WRs tipping the ball into the air allowing for the ball to be picked off, those have been minimized this season.
Josh: Other than Booker and Wilson, who are some offensive players that Colorado State has to watch out for on Saturday?
Shane: Bubba Poole, the back up running back, is a nice change of pace back from Booker. He's a bit more elusive, but not as powerful. Expect to see a lot of Kaelin Clay, Kenneth Scott and Westlee Tonga in the receiving game. Clay will stretch the field with the deep ball, due to the absence of Dres Anderson. Clay has proven to be a deep threat by getting behind Oregon multiple times, as well as Stanford, Arizona and Colorado. You'll see Scott moving the chains, getting the tough yards. I'm hoping they send Scott deep from time-to-time. He's about 6' 4", a solid 220-pounds, just your prototypical Pac-12 type of receiver that can go up and catch almost anything. Then Tonga will be lining up as tight end, and sneaking up the seem, and being the check down to Wilson. Booker gets a lot of the run and headlines, but don't be fooled, this Utah offense has a lot of talent on offense - it's just up to offensive coordinator Dave Christensen to use them.
Josh: Colorado State boasts one of the most explosive players in the country with wide receiver Rashard Higgins. Utah was successful at keeping USC's Nelson Agholor out of the endzone and USC's offense to only two offensive touchdowns. Which defensive players lead the Ute's defense that has had success against some of the best offenses the Pac-12 has to offer?
Shane: Eric Rowe will match up with Higgins one-on-one virtually all game, but I'd expect Utah to have a safety hanging out over the top to bracket Higgins as well. Rowe was a freshman all-american at safety, and now as a corner has done a nice job all year on the other teams top receivers. However, I'd expect Utah's front four to play a big key in slowing down Higgins by putting pressure on the quarterback. Utah is at the top of the country is sacks per game, and will flat out get after CSU in the backfield. Obviously Nate Orchard is a name people are familiar with, since he's been named to 8 different all-america teams, won the Hendricks Award (best DE in the country) and won the Morris Trophy (Pac-12 Best DLineman), but other names like Hunter Dimick, Lowell Lotulelei (yes, the younger brother of Star Lotulelei), Jason Faniaka and Jared Norris anchor a pass rush happy front seven. Utah's philosophy is to play press man coverage on the outside, and get after the quarterback, and it has worked great all season long.
Josh: Are there any Ute's players playing in the Las Vegas Bowl that fans can expect to see play on Sundays in the NFL?
Shane:Nate Orchard will get a shot, as will the injured wide receiver Dres Anderson. Another name that could get into the league is Eric Rowe, because he's done a nice job on the best wide outs in the country this year, and Utah has put the most corners into the NFL over the last decade. Everybody else on the Utes, that of note anyway, should be back next season. Devontae Booker may leave early, but I expect him to be back.
Josh: This one for fun, what is your prediction for the game?
Shane: I think Utah gets this one, with the score of about 38-28. I think Booker proves to be too much, and Utah's pass rush will ultimately keep CSU's offense in check.
We here at Mountain West Connection would like to thank Shane for his time to give us Mountain West fans more insight into the Utah Football Team. For more on the Utah Utes, check out SB Nation's Block U.