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SALT LAKE CITY — After the first two games of the season, there are still plenty of questions yet to be answered surrounding the Utes.
First, just how good is this Utah football team? It is safe to say that Fresno State is nowhere near the caliber of team it was a year ago with three blowout losses to start the 2014 season, and Idaho State is, well, Idaho State. While Utah's offense has been explosive and its first team defense dominant in its first two blowout wins, we still don't know just how good this team is — or can be.
Second, can the Utes break out of their recent road slump? Since joining the Pac-12 Conference, the Utes have been a different team on the road. In those three seasons, the Utes are 6-11 on the road. The last two seasons have been especially bad away from home, with just two wins while piling up nine losses.
Come Saturday afternoon in the Big House, we will know a lot more about those two questions as the Utes face the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
"Our guys are excited to go there and play one of the most storied programs in college football," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham stated in his weekly press conference.
How can the Utes end their recent road struggles? Here are four keys for the Utes as they get ready to take on the Wolverines:
Through three games, Michigan has turned the ball over eight times — five interceptions and three fumbles. Utah only has forced one turnover in its two games, and that was the result of a snap going over the quarterback's head against Fresno State. Utah's defense only recorded three interceptions for the entire 2013 season, and one of those was by a defensive end. Can Utah dial up enough pressure on Devin Gardner to force a quick throw into coverage? And can the Utes capitalize on those opportunities and make a play?
Utah's Achilles heel on the defensive side of the ball in recent seasons has been the ability to contain mobile quarterbacks, from UCLA's Brett Hundley to Arizona State's Taylor Kelly to Utah State's Chuckie Keeton. Michigan's Devin Gardner hasn't had much opportunity through the Wolverines' first three games to showcase his athleticism on his feet, but if Utah doesn't contain him he could have a big day on his feet, extending drives on critical third down situations. Gardner is a proven runner with 483 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground in 2013. Gardner also doesn't get enough credit for being a capable passer either, as he's improved his completion percentage from 60.3 percent in 2013 to 68.2 percent so far this season.
"[Gardner] is a big strong kid. He runs the ball well," Whittingham said. "He's got quickness and athleticism. He's throwing the ball pretty good too. He's a dual threat for sure. Although he hasn't run a bunch yet this year, he's very capable, and we need to make sure we have our bases covered. He's a really good athlete."
Boasting the top punter, kicker and kick returner combo in the nation, the Utes special teams will play a significant role in the outcome of this game. Field position will be at a premium against a tough Michigan defense that ranks seventh in the country. Any and all opportunities for points will need to be converted, even if it is Andy Phillips' field goals. Returner Kaelin Clay might even have an opportunity to swing momentum back to the Utes after a Michigan kickoff with a big return.
The Big House sits 109,901 fans, more than double the size of Rice-Eccles. Michigan boasts the most wins in college football (912), 11 national championships and three Heisman Trophy winners. Intimidated? The Utes shouldn't be. The Utes aren't playing the rich tradition of Michigan, they are playing 11 players that are suited up across the field from them.
"You're not playing the tradition, helmets or anything else," Whittingham said in a Pac-12 conference call Tuesday. "You're playing the 11 guys on the field."
And he's right. Can the Utes prepare mentally to play well in a hostile environment, as well as win on the road?
It can be done. In 2008, Kyle Whittingham took the Utes into the Big House and came away with a 25-23 win.
Robert Jackson is the cross platform sports and weather producer for ksl.com and KSL-TV. He has covered the Utes for KSL since 2008. You can catch him and co-host Brian Swinney Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7-9 p.m. on the Ute Sports Report 1320 KFAN.