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SALT LAKE CITY -- The University of Utah football team is back in action Saturday as they travel to Fort Collins, Colo. to take on the Colorado State Rams.
The Utes are coming off their bye week feeling rejuvenated and ready to start conference play. The Rams are trying to rebound after letting a 14-0 lead in the middle of the second quarter (and a 20-7 lead in the 3rd quarter) slip to the Idaho Vandals and finally losing 31-29 to their WAC opponent. This greatly enhances the debate on how large the gap between TCU, BYU and Utah from the rest of the conference really is.
Utah Head Coach Kyle Whittingham has loves that the bye week came at the exact middle of the season if fall camp is counted. The team needed to heal some bumps and bruises and is now ready to enter conference play. Whittingham is 2-2 in conference openers, yet is 4-0 coming off bye weeks. This is the Rams conference home opener and they have won 3 games in a row at home. Colorado State has not beaten the Utes since 2005.
About the Utes' offense
Utah's team has changed since we last saw them. The Mountain West Conference's leading rusher, Matt Asiata, is done for the season with a torn ACL. Utah relied heavily on Asiata in the offensive and defensive game planning. Asiata obviously carried the ball 25-30 times during the games, caught the ball out of the backfield, and was great in pass-protection just to name a couple of things offensively. He was also key in keeping the ball and sustaining long drives enabling the defense to stay off the field and he also seemed to be a leader on the field. Where does that leadership now come from on the offensive side of the ball?
The running back depth chart is getting thin, forcing the Utes to move wide receiver Shaky Smithson over to running back. Smithson is listed as #2 as Sausan Shakerin is still recovering from his injuries (shoulder, wrist). Whittingham expects Eddie Wide III to be able to carry the ball about 16-20 times per game. Quarterback Terrance Cain will also run the ball quite a bit, and if "Shak" can't go, Smithson could get the ball a few times. Whittingham believes that Smithson will be very effective at running back as he is "quick and elusive, and runs behind his pads." We shall see.
About the Utes' defense
While the Utah defense is statistically not what it has been in recent years, they are the best in the nation in one statistic that might be the best stat to be tops in the nation in: opponent 3rd down conversion rate. Utah has allowed 10 out of 52 (19.2%) on 3rd down, which simply means that they get off the field. They had 14 straight stops on third down to start the season.
About the Rams
Colorado State has been everything that is good and bad for the Mountain West Conference. They opened the year at rival Colorado and beat the Buffaloes. In week two, Colorado State hosted Ogden's Weber State and except for a botched snap by the Wildcats on the 9-yard line, Weber wins that game. Instead the Rams held on to beat the Wildcats by one point. They were home again the week after that with Nevada. The Wolfpack came into Fort Collins and did nothing. The Rams were off to their best start since 1994. Week four came and went as Colorado State came into Provo and got down 21-0 in the first quarter and could never recover. That brings us to a week ago where the Rams traveled to Moscow, Idaho and loss to the WAC's new upstart team, the Vandals. Kyle Whittingham said in his weekly press conference that Idaho is a very good football team. Whether or not the Vandals are good remains to be seen, but what CSU has done will continue to plague the Mountain West Conference for the rest of the year. The Rams beat a Big 12 team and then got beat by a historically awful WAC team. To be fair to the Rams, the Idaho game was as classic a trap game as there could ever be. Sandwiched between BYU and Utah, then TCU, CSU may have forgotten to prepare for Idaho.
About the Rams' offense
Offensively the Rams have two things that create almost automatic success. They employ a senior quarterback, Grant Stucker, and have one of the most experienced offensive line in the country. The Rams O-line has 125 consecutive starts and historically the combination of a senior quarterback and an experienced O-line is deadly. Rams' Head Coach Steve Fairchild has brought in some excitement and an NFL-style offense. Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham says what they do is no secret; they run the ball to setup their play-action pass.
In the past, this has been one of the tougher places for the Utes to pick up a victory. Utah has won five of the last six meetings, but before that CSU won six straight from 1995-2002. Which team will show up for Colorado State? If it is the team that showed up against Colorado, the Utes might have a difficult day, if it is the team that showed up against Weber State, BYU, or Idaho, Utah will win by two touchdowns.
It will be interesting to see if the Utes offense will be similar to when Matt Asiata was available to them, or if offensive coordinator Dave Schramm gets more creative, especially in goal-line situations. Look for this game to be close with Utah adding a touchdown or two late in the game to secure a victory. Utah will be refreshed and it will show in their conference opener. Even though the Utes lost at Oregon, their goals of winning the Mountain West Championship are still alive and it all starts Saturday at 4pm in Fort Collins.