Utah’s Saturday night clash with Stanford could be a tone-setting game for the rest of their season as the Pac-12 pecking order begins to take shape.
The Utes (4-0, 1-0) enters this weekend’s tilt at Rice-Eccles Stadium ranked in both major national polls (No. 20 in AP Poll, No. 18 in Coaches Poll) and the sole undefeated team in the Pac-12 South. While it’s still relatively early in the season, a win over Stanford (3-2, 2-1) only would help establish Utah as a legitimate contender in the conference.
“There are still two or three weeks left before you really get a feel of who is who and where you are at, not only with your opponents but also with yourself,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I think this is going to be the stiffest challenge of the year. I said that about our opponent two weeks ago, and I think this one exceeds that one.”
ESPN’s Football Power Index tabbed the Utes for a total of five wins this preseason. A victory this weekend would keep the Utes unbeaten and give them five wins before they’ve reached the middle of the season with pivotal conference games looming.
Of course, the Utes don’t have the luxury of looking at any one game as a defining game. Their remaining schedule includes conference games against nationally ranked foes USC, Washington State and Washington as well as dates with Arizona State, UCLA, at Oregon and Colorado.
“They’re not Arizona. They’re a different type of style,” junior strong safety Chase Hansen said about Stanford. “For me, I try to look at it as another game just a different type of team. You’ve got to bring it every week. The times you look at teams differently — bring it this week, don’t bring it that week — that’s when you slip up in the Pac. That’s when you can fall.”
Stanford features arguably the most dominating player in college football this season in running back Bryce Love, a 5-foot-10, 196-pound product of North Carolina. Love leads the nation in rushing yards (1,088 in five games) and ranks third in all-purpose yards (218.60 per game).
Most of the Utes’ focus this week has been on slowing down Love and containing his explosive running ability. Love’s 11 longest runs this season have combined to cover 591 yards. He has six rushing touchdowns of 50 yards or more.
“If we can come downhill as a linebacking corps and just blow up the holes and the pullers — they like to pull — and guys are running to the ball, I think we’ll be good,” Utes senior linebacker Kavika Luafatasaga said. Another key “is just wrapping him up, holding on for dear life and just letting other guys come and finish the play.”
While Whittingham wouldn’t say whether Tyler Huntley even practiced all this week, all signs point to senior quarterback Troy Williams starting his first game of the season this weekend. It will be his first in Utah’s new offensive system under first-year quarterback coach and offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. The Utes scored an average of 35 points through their first four games, though three of those games came against nonconference opponents who enter this weekend with a combined record of 3-13.
The Utes certainly have showed a more dynamic passing game than recent seasons. Huntley became the first back-to-back 300-yard passer since 2008 earlier this season. Eight receivers have at least two catches this season, and Darren Carrington II enters this weekend ranked sixth in Football Bowl Subdivision in receiving yards per game (121.3).
“They’ve always been creative offensively,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “They’ve always had that physical mentality. They’ve always been a great running team and then find a way to do something schematically to take advantage of what you do defensively.
“So I would say this year it’s just the versatility that they have on the offensive side. You see the receivers being effective. You see the running game being effective with multiple backs. You see the athletic quarterback being able to hurt you with his legs. There’s just so many different things that you have to be able to account for that that’s enough to keep a defensive coordinator up at night.”
STANFORD AT UTAH
At Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City
Kickoff • 8:15 p.m. MT
TV • FS1
Radio • 700 AM, Sirius XM 145/XM 201, Internet 961
Records • Utah 4-0, 1-0; Stanford 3-2, 2-1
Series history • Utah leads 4-3
About the Cardinal • After back-to-back losses to USC and San Diego State, Stanford comes to Salt Lake City having won back-to-back games against UCLA and Arizona State. Stanford still is looking for its first true road win since the season opener against Rice took place in Sydney, Australia. … Running back Bryce Love is Stanford’s career leader in yards per rush (8.81), the first rusher in program history with 100 yards in each of his first seven career starts, and his 301-yard rushing performance last weekend is the eight-best total in Pac-12 history. His 217.6 yards rushing per game this season lead the nation. … Senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips had a career-high 11 tackles against USC and followed that with 10 tackles against San Diego State. He also had a team-high nine tackles (one sack) against Arizona State last week.
About the Utes • Senior quarterback Troy Williams appears likely to make his first start of the season. Williams, a co-captain, started all 13 games for the Utes last season when they went 9-4. Williams has gone 9-of-19 passing for 131 yards without a touchdown or an interception so far this season. … Wide receiver Darren Carrington II ranks 15th nationally in receiving yards (485). Carrington, a former Oregon standout, has nine receptions for 151 yards and two touchdowns in three previous games against Stanford. Each of his touchdowns have come from 25 yards out or more. … The Utah secondary has been a ball-hawking unit this season. Six Utes defensive backs have at least one interception through the first four games, and the Utes have a total of nine interceptions. The defensive backs have accounted for two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.