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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive back Keith McGill (1) leaps to intercept a BYU pass and comes up just short in the first quarter as the BYU Cougars host the Utah Utes, college football Saturday, September 21, 2013 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Cody Hoffman (2) at bottom.
Utah football: Underdog Utes like matchup with Cardinal
College football » Utah defenders believe Stanford’s physical, power offense suits them
First Published Oct 11 2013 12:08 pm • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:35 pm

If one went by rankings alone, the Utah Utes face a tougher task Saturday when they take on No. 5 Stanford than they did a week ago when No. 12 UCLA paid a visit.

But despite Stanford’s lofty ranking, impressive numbers and a quarterback who is undefeated as a starter, the Utes are feeling much better about their chances of scoring an upset against the Cardinal than they did the Bruins.

At a glance

Stanford at Utah

At Rice-Eccles Stadium

Kickoff » Saturday, 4 p.m.

Radio » 700 AM

Series history » Stanford leads 3-2

Last meeting » Utah, 17-10 (Sept. 7, 1996)

About the Utes » Utah is playing back-to-back games against ranked teams for the seventh time in school history. … The Utes are 1-2 against top-five teams in the last five seasons with a win over No. 4 Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl and losses to No. 4 TCU in 2009 and 2010. … Receiver Dres Anderson has four 100-yard games and is tied for the national lead in receptions of 50 yards or more with four.

About the Cardinal » Coming off a 31-28 win over Washington. … Receiver Ty Montgomery is sixth nationally in all-purpose yards (176.6). … They are 2-0 vs. Utah in Salt Lake City. … Coach David Shaw is 28-4 in his third year.

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The Utes, who are trying to avoid their third 0-3 start in league play in three years, believe they match up well with the Cardinal.

Stanford is one of the few teams in the Pac-12 that has seemingly bucked the pass-happy, hurry-up approach to offense, relying instead on a straight-ahead, no-frills run game to get their offense going. The Cardinal even huddle up between plays. Imagine.

"They line up and think their players are better than everyone else’s so they take their time and line up and make sure things are done correctly," Utah cornerback Keith McGill said. "It is working for them."

Such a traditional outlook plays right into Utah’s tradition as well — that of a very good run defense.

The Utes have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this year and rank fourth in the league in run defense, giving up 131.8 yards a game.

What the matchup boils down to is tradition vs. tradition: Stanford’s run game against Utah’s stout front seven.

It should be smash-mouth football at its finest.

Stanford coach David Shaw is anticipating an afternoon of hard knocks.

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"Utah’s defensive line doesn’t move, and we like to move people," Shaw said. "They have a very tough defense to go against."

Says Utah defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi: "They like to run it down your throat and we have a good run defense, so it’s going to be a great challenge. They are a physical team, but we’re physical too."

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan might be an agile quarterback who boasts a 10-0 record as a starter and is averaging more than five yards a carry, but the Utes believe they can contain him, much like they did BYU’s Taysom Hill and UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley.

If they can pull that off, the Utes like their chances of finally earning that big Pac-12 win they so desperately want.

While losing close decisions to Oregon State and UCLA might hurt some teams’ outlooks, McGill said it has had an opposite affect on him and his teammates.

"It makes me want to play harder," said McGill, who came to Utah to be a part of the Utes’ great defensive tradition. "I like to be the underdog in any competition, and [with] them so highly ranked at No. 5 and we are not ranked, everybody is going to be giving them the benefit of the doubt."

While Utah’s offense is much improved, Utah’s defenders would love nothing more than to be the catalyst for a an upset of the Cardinal.

"We have the No. 5 team coming in here and it would be big momentum to go into our road games," Palepoi said.

But getting a win will be difficult since Stanford isn’t as one dimensional as other teams the Utes have faced.

The run game is key, with Hogan and running back Tyler Gaffney (89.8 yards per game) leading the way. But so too is the passing game, led by phenom receiver Ty Montgomery . The junior averages 76.6 yards per game and is also one of the best kick returners in the country, averaging 33.5 yards per game.

The Utes must also account for 6-foot-4 junior receiver Devon Cajuste, who has 12 catches for 251 yards.

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