Sure, the Utes took advantage of the bye to rest weary bodies and tend to injuries, but the past week also served as part one of Stanford preparation.
Utah (4-0, 1-0) went into this past week needing to get healthy, having several aspects of its game to clean up and with a seemingly endless amount of time to dissect and analyze its next opponent and Pac-12 Conference power Stanford.
“We‘re already looking ahead, like tendencies, what they like to do and ways we can stop them,” Utes junior cornerback Casey Hughes said last Monday.
Stanford comes into this week with a 3-2 record (2-1 in Pac-12) after beating Arizona State 34-24 on Saturday, while the Utes will bring an unblemished record into this weekend’s game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“Obviously, we’re still early in our stages, and we can get a lot better, especially in this first half of the season after the bye week,” senior defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi said of the Utes’ defense. “We’ve got a lot of things to clean up, stopping the run, some pass rush defense. We can get better in a lot of areas.”
The last time Stanford and the Utes met came in November 2014, and the Utes won a 20-17 dogfight in double overtime in Stanford Stadium. At that time, quarterback Travis Wilson and running back Devontae Booker were the key offensive weapons for the Utes. Running back Christian McCaffrey and quarterback Kevin Hogan led that Stanford attack.
The personnel on both teams has changed significantly. However, Stanford hasn’t changed its approach much at all. Opponents still know going into a game against the Cardinal that their plan includes beating teams up at the line of scrimmage and running the football at them repeatedly. The formula yielded three Pac-12 titles in the past five seasons and 10 wins or more in five of the past six seasons.
Stanford entered this past weekend ranked 16th in Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing yards per game. The offensive line returns four starters and nine lettermen from last season.
“You’ve got to be mentally prepared because you know they’re coming and they’re going to be very physical,” Mokofisi said of preparing for Stanford’s style of play. “I think they’re like us. They’re a very physical team and they pride themselves on that, so we’ve got to be ready for that.”
Cardinal running back Bryce Love went into this past weekend leading as the FBS leader in rushing yards (787 through four games). He added another 301 yards (a program single-game record) on Saturday to push him past 1,000 rushing yards or the season.
“Their M.O. is physical run game on offense and tough, hard-nosed defense,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said this past week. “They’ve obviously got a great answer for [Christian] McCaffrey that left. The Love kid is phenomenal. … It’s your typical Stanford. They’re going to line up, smash-mouth football. You know what’s coming. They know that you know what’s coming, and they’re just going to keep doing it anyway.”
The Utes’ run defense will certainly get tested. They held Arizona’s daunting ground attack, one of the top in the nation entering that game, to 220 yards. That’s lower than what Arizona had been averaging, but also not as low as the Utes want.
The test could be even bigger this week depending on the health of the Utah defense. Starting defensive ends Kylie Fitts and Bradlee Anae, as well as starting linebacker Kavika Luafatasaga, finished the Arizona game on the sidelines. They’ll have had two weeks to recover by the time the Utes kick off against Stanford, but depth could play a big part in their ability to stop the run.
Offensively, the Utes will have had two weeks to adjust to the loss of Tyler Huntley. Assuming Huntley will not be ready to play against Stanford, senior quarterback Troy Williams will now have had time to find his footing in a new offensive system installed this season. His first action this season with the game still on the line came at Arizona.
For that matter, the entire Utes offense will have had a chance to digest four games worth of game-speed repetitions in first-year offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s system and also get comfortable with Williams taking over as the starter.
“I think it came at a good time, the bye week,” senior wide receiver Darren Carrington II said. “It’s a good time for us to get back into the playbook and learn the offense a little bit more because it is all new to us.”