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Fresno State Football: Early Preview of the Utah Utes

Old foes from the heady days of WACtion meet again on September 6, when the Utes play host to the Bulldogs.

William Mancebo

It’s been sixteen long years since the Bulldogs traveled to Salt Lake City to face the Utes, so an entire generation of young fans has no memory of the fact that such trips were often fruitless.  Fresno’s lone win in Rice-Eccles Stadium happened on September 15, 1990.  For the sake of context:

  • Ghost wrapped up its last box office win the week before Fresno's last win at Utah.
  • Vanilla Ice released To The Extreme the week before that.
  • Germany would become one nation again and Atlanta would lock down Olympic hosting duties in the week after said win.
  • ...Well, it was 1990, alright?

Needless to say, the next "W" has been a long time coming, but until both teams take the field, let’s take a first look at the Utes:

Utah Utes

Location: Salt Lake City, Utah

Stadium: Rice-Eccles Stadium

Mascot: The Utes’ mascot is a red-tailed hawk named Swoop.

Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham is the longest tenured head coach in the Pac-12.  2014 marks his tenth season roaming the Utes’ sideline and, while he has a 75-39 overall record, his squads have been decidedly average (18-19) since defecting from the Mountain West in 2011.

Conference/Division: Pac-12 South

2013 Record: 5-7 (2-7 in Pac-12).  The season began on a high note when the Utes hung on for a win against Chuckie Keeton and the Utah State Aggies, but the team that took the field in subsequent weeks was wonderfully inconsistent.  They secured the Beehive Boot following a win against BYU, then fell short in an upset bid against UCLA, and then upended an unsuspecting Stanford team.  Finally, the offense more or less sputtered as the team dropped five in a row to fall out of bowl contention before recovering to defeat rebuilding Colorado.

Last Bowl Game: Utah’s last bowl appearance was in 2011, when they rallied in the second half to beat Georgia Tech 30-27 in the Sun Bowl.

Five Key Players:

Travis Wilson, quarterback.  If Wilson played well in 2013, chances are that the Utes came out on top.  That "if" exists for a couple reasons, though:  He was prone to interceptions in losses against Oregon State and UCLA, and then he struggled with injuries before sitting out the last three games of the season.  It’s difficult to say definitively whether Wilson took a step back, but he will be an important cog in new coordinator Dave Christensen’s offense.

Nate Orchard, defensive end.  Now that All-Pac-12 selection Trevor Reilly has moved on, the Utes will have to get contributions toward the pass rush from elsewhere.  Orchard proved he could be disruptive in the upset win against Stanford, when he collected two sacks and forced two fumbles, and now he’ll have to provide a more consistent presence.

Dres Anderson, wide receiver.  The overall depth chart at wide receiver is murky going into fall camp, but whomever winds up at quarterback can thank their lucky stars for a home run hitter like Anderson.  The senior, who is the son of former Los Angeles Rams star Flipper Anderson, had more than twice the yards of Utah’s second-best pass catcher and averaged an astounding 18.9 yards per catch in 2013, the third-best figure among FBS receivers who could match his 53 catches.  Those two receivers that bested him, by the way, were Mike Evans and Odell Beckham.

Jeremiah Poutasi, offensive guard.  Poutasi has spent the last two years proving his versatility, spending his freshman year at right tackle before moving to the left side in 2013.  For the moment, though, Utah’s two-deep lists the junior as the starter at left guard, an intriguing development for all but the Pac-12’s defensive tackles.  At 6’5" and 345 pounds, lining up against him looks like a grueling assignment.

Eric Rowe, free safety.  In 2011, Utah was among the nation’s top ballhawking defenses.  Two years later, the Utes were tied for last in interceptions with just three in 12 games.  Rowe, a senior with three years of starting experience under his belt, has been steady if not flashy.  His ability to get hands on the ball could prove to be a deciding factor in a game or two in 2014.

Offensive overview: Mountain West fans are intimately familiar with former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen, postgame tirade connoisseur and the creator of both Good Brett Smith and Bad Brett Smith.  He brings his spread offense with him to Salt Lake City, where the hope is that Wilson can use his mobility judiciously to keep defenses guessing.  Bubba Poole is the de facto starter at running back, though it appears redshirt freshman Troy McCormick will push him for playing time.  The offensive line has to replace two starters, but sophomores Isaac Asiata and Siaosi Aiono got valuable experience in 2013 alongside veterans Poutasi and Junior Salt.

Defensive overview: Coordinator Kalani Sitake will be counting on his linebackers, most notably Jacoby Hale and Jason Whittingham, to bring a veteran presence to a 4-2-5 defense with questions in the secondary.  With any luck, Rowe will be joined in the defensive backfield by Brian Blechen, who missed all of 2013 due to injury but has proven to be a versatile defender in three years as a starter.

Early prediction: History says that Salt Lake City has not been kind to the Bulldogs, but Utah’s leap to the Pac-12 has not gone as smoothly as hoped.  Despite Fresno’s ongoing quarterback controversy, I find that preferable to reliance upon a signal caller with a recent history of concussions.  A lot will ride on whether the ‘Dogs edge rushers can beat Utah’s offensive line and how well the secondary can contain Anderson, but for now I’m betting on a slugfest that ends in Fresno’s favor.  Fresno State 21, Utah 20.