Utah's Pac-12 woes continued in a loss against UCLA last week and this week won't be any easier against the juggernaut that is number five ranked Stanford. The Utes hung tough with UCLA, but were doomed by six interceptions from Travis Wilson in a 34-27 loss. Stanford was seriously tested last week at home against Washington, but survived for a nailbiting 31-28 victory. Can Utah get the Pac-12 monkey off their back and get potentially the biggest win in the history of Rice-Eccles stadium? Or will Stanford continue to roll on their quest to Oregon a few weeks down the road to clinch the north division? Here's a position-by-position look at this week's matchup and which team will have the edge heading into Saturday's game:
Travis Wilson again showed flashes of athletic ability and potential for the future, but all the positives were overshadowed by his propensity to turn the ball over in critical situations. There's an argument to be made that a few of Wilson's picks could be attributed to his receivers, but it boils down to giving the ball away six times in the crunch time of the second half, including three drive killing picks out of five possessions in the third quarter. Overall, Wilson has eight interceptions in the second half of Utah's games against Pac-12 opponents, with nine total for the season. However, Stanford also gave up 350 passing yards to Washington quarterback Keith Price, a glimmer of hope for Wilson if he can take care of the football.
Junior quarterback Kevin Hogan isn't spectacular for Stanford, but he's been efficient when it matters. Hogan has 11 touchdowns and four interceptions this season, is completing nearly 63 percent of his passes and is averaging 168 yards through the air per game. He struggled against Washington for only 100 yards passing, one touchdown and one interception, but Stanford doesn't need him to be spectacular to win games with their stifling defense and solid running game. However, if the Utes can score early on Stanford and force Hogan into a shootout, he could struggle. He hasn't been forced to attempt more than 27 passes in a game all season.
The Utes have a few solid options in the running game, something that Kyle Whittingham doesn't seem to mind heading into the Stanford game. Bubba Poole, Kelvin York and Lucky Radley all had five or more carries against UCLA combining for 25 carries and 102 yards. Overall, Poole is the leader in the clubhouse, getting 63 carries this year for 330 yards and a touchdown. Radley and York have combined for 55 carries, 267 yards and three touchdowns. Wilson continues to lead the team in rushing touchdowns with five, more than all of his running backs combined, a somewhat alarming stat this far into the season.
Stanford senior Tyler Gaffney is the man for the Cardinal, carrying the bulk of the work with 92 carries, 462 yards and six touchdowns. He was instrumental in the win against Washington, helping Stanford control the ball with 20 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown. Overall, Gaffney has 226 yards rushing and three touchdowns against Pac-12 opponents this season. Senior Anthony Wilkerson provides a change of pace for Gaffney and has 214 yards and a touchdown of his own.
Dres Anderson continues to produce for the Utes and is underrated from a national and conference standpoint. He is fifth in the Pac-12 in receiving yards and 12th in receptions, totalling 510 yards and four touchdowns this season. Anderson is also staggeringly efficient with his reception opportunities with 21 yards per catch and 102 receiving yards per game. Most importantly, he's bringing his "A" game to the Utes' conference contests, with 207 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon State and UCLA. Sean Fitzgerald and Anthony Denham continue to be solid second and third options, but both need to be more consistent. The loss of tight end Jake Murphy hurts as his underwhelming stats don't reflect his role as a consistent safety blanket for Wilson.
Junior Ty Montgomery is the "go-to" guy for the Cardinal and has stepped up big this season. He has only one game over 100 yards receiving, but has at least three catches in all five of Stanford's games and has found the end zone in all but one of their contests. Montgomery has 383 yards, five touchdowns and is averaging nearly 17 yards per catch this season. Sophomore Michael Rector and junior Devon Cajuste are solid options as well, combining for 370 yards and five touchdowns of their own.
The Utes offensive line struggled against the tough defensive front of UCLA, giving up three sacks and yielding to pressure in critical moments when Wilson needed a clean pocket. Four of the seven sacks surrendered this season by Utah's offensive front have been against Pac-12 opponents, a significant problem going into a game against one of the best defensive fronts in the conference. Utah ranks fifth in surrendered sacks this season.
Stanford's offensive line is one of the strengths of this team, led by mauling guard David Yankey. The unit has given up five sacks and three have come against conference opponents, but the team still ranks second in the conference in sacks surrendered.
Defensive Line and Linebackers
Utah has quietly built one of the most dominant defensive fronts in the conference. While Stanford, UCLA and Arizona State get most of the analyst love, Utah is leading the Pac-12 with 18 sacks for 113 negative yards. The unit had three sacks against UCLA and seven tackles for loss, bringing the total to a staggering 38 tackles for loss on the season. Trevor Reilly, Tenny Palepoi and Nate Orchard continue to shine, but the Utes have new emerging sources of defensive pressure in Jason Whittingham, Jacoby Hale and Jared Norris. Last week against UCLA, the trio combined for 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
Stanford is right there with Utah near the top of the conference in quarterback takedowns with 14 sacks and 37 tackles for loss of its own. Seniors Josh Mauro and Trent Murphy have been a terror off the edge, racking up 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks for the Cardinal, while senior Shayne Skov continues as the heart of the defense with 43 tackles, four tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Overall, Stanford has seven different players with at least three tackles for loss. The experience difference will be the key in this game as most of the front seven of Stanford has battled through tough Pac-12 games year in and year out.
The secondary continues to be the achilles heel for Utah, as the Utes continue to struggle on the back end and are ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in pass defense. The Utes are surrendering 274 yards through the air per game on average, with 661 yards coming in two games against Pac-12 opponents UCLA and Oregon State. The Utes are also dead last in the conference in interceptions, with only two picks in 2013.
Luckily for Utah, Stanford's secondary isn't much better. Washington quarterback Keith Price had a field day against the Cardinal, passing for 350 yards and two touchdowns. Overall, Stanford is only one spot above Utah in the conference pass defense rankings, surrendering 261 yards per game and 9 passing touchdowns, the same amount as the Utes. In three conference games, Stanford is surrendering a brutal 410 yards per game through the air and 1,229 yards overall. However, the Stanford defensive backfield has been far more opportunistic than Utah's, picking off six passes so far.
The key to this game will be if Utah's offensive line can hold up to a physical and experienced Stanford defensive front and if Wilson can relax and quit forcing the ball into tight coverage. The Stanford defensive line will do enough to pressure Wilson and Gaffney will be able to grind out enough yards for the Cardinal to take a 27-20 victory.