Today we welcome in James Durrant of Utezone.com to talk about this weekend's Colorado State/Utah contest in Salt Lake. Durrant offers us his insight on a strong Utah defense, the expectations in Salt Lake City and his prediction of a Utah win in this week's Behind Enemy Lines.
Goldandgreennews.com:Utah comes into the game ranked solidly in the top-10 and undefeated. At this point in the season, what are the expectations of the Utes and are they good enough to be in the national championship discussion?
Durrant: :I think the majority of Utah fans have the same attitude as the coaching staff and players - the expectations are to win the Mountain West. The difference is that while Kyle Whittingham and company refuse to overlook any opponent, outside of the program most seem to believe that the game against TCU will determine the conference title, and the winner will finish the regular season undefeated. Right now, my unpopular opinion is that the Utes are not good enough to be BCS title contenders. True contenders protect the football and create turnovers, both areas the Utes have struggled with. That being said, if Utah can avoid turning the ball over and start forcing turnovers on defense over the last half of the season, starting with CSU, then I believe an undefeated Utah team should be in the BCS title discussion.
Goldandgreennews.com: Jordan Wynn is in year two as a starter for the Utes. How has he matured as a player and a person and how has that impacted the offense in 2010?
Durrant: :Wynn has been mature beyond his years since arriving at Utah in the spring of 2009. This year, he has grown into his role as team leader. Wynn says all the right things, works hard on and off the field, and has become a vocal leader instead of just leading by example. He has become a student of the game and is starting to flourish under new quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson. On the field, Wynn's technique has greatly improved; his footwork is much better, his ball placement has improved especially on the underneath routes, he is seeing the field and reading defenses much better. The direct result is that the Utah offense is moving the chains and scoring points at rates not seen since the explosive 2004 squad.
Goldandgreennews.com: Utah's offense has been strong both on the ground as well as through the air. That leads me to believe the offensive line is a real strength of this team. Are they the key to the amazing balance Utah features and what, if anything, has worked against against this offense that has put up nearly 100 points the last two weeks?
Durrant: :The offensive line for Utah has been outstanding. Zane Taylor and Caleb Schlauderaff have led the unit, and Schlauderaff to this point has been the best offensive lineman in the conference and should be an All-American. The key to the unit has been the improvement on the right side of the line. Tony Bergstrom and Tevita Stevens struggled a year ago as first-year starters. Both have truly stepped up their game, especially Stevens, who has quietly become an all-conference candidate (Stevens is third on the starting line with an 83 percent grade, second in cuts with 10, third in pancakes with five, and has yet to allow a sack or be called for a penalty). Along with the strong play of John Cullen, the improvement on the right side has given Wynn time to find receivers and create seams in the run game. Cullen has been very good in pass protection, though he did give up the starting line's first sack last week against Wyoming when he failed to pick up a stunt in time. To this point of the season, the only way teams have slowed down Utah on offense is to strip the football. Utah's receivers have been able to run away from man coverage or find and sit in the holes in zones. Wynn has been patient enough to go through his reads and take what the defense is willing to give. The backs are running hard and churning out yards. The line has been great at picking up blitzes. Penalties are way down since week one. Outside of forcing turnovers, the best way to slow down Utah is to stop them on first down to try and create as many third and long situations as possible. Even so, Utah is eighth nationally in converting third downs, and have not converted less than 50 percent in any game this season.
Goldandgreennews.com:On defense the Utes seem very balanced as well and in the past, they have been known has featuring a very strong defensive secondary. Is it as strong as in past seasons? Who are the playmakers on the Utah defense and who do the Rams need to keep an eye on this week as they gameplan?
Durrant: :The coverage in the secondary has been as good as ever this year. Brandon Burton, Lamar Chapman, and Conroy Black have all been very good, particularly in man coverage. Utah is missing a ball-hawk at safety like Robert Johnson or Eric Weddle, and as a result the Utes are on pace to have their fewest interceptions in a season since recording just seven picks in 2000. Brian Blechen is coming close to being that playmaker at safety. The true freshman has one interception on the season and has been a half-step away from several more. Watch Burton at corner - you may not see a better cornerback all year. Teams have just given up throwing his way. Trevor Reilly has been playing very well at defensive end the last few games and is arguably Utah's best pass rusher. Derrick Shelby has improved each week after missing the entire offseason recovering from an ACL injury and is almost back to his explosive self. Look out for Chapman blitzing from his nickel position when CSU goes to a three-wide look; Utah loves to bring Chapman on both run and pass blitzes, and he leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks.
Goldandgreennews.com:Finally, what are your keys to the game and a prediction on the final score?
Durrant: :Keys for Utah - No turnovers; ride the run game; get after Thomas and finish - no more missed sacks; don't get beat deep - keep Lou Greenwood and Byron Steele in front and put pressure on the punter and make CSU pay for whatever way they try to take Shaky out of the return game Keys for CSU - Establish the run by spreading Utah's defense out and get the d-line moving horizontally at the snap; hit at least one big play per quarter; weather the second quarter storm (Utah is outscoring opponents 117-7). change things up on both sides of the ball after the first 15 minutes and attack the offensive line, don't let Utah get comfortable up front. Finally, be unconventional. Go for it on fourth-and-short, try an early onside kick, do something to create your own momentum in a hostile environment
Prediction: : Utah is upset about their lethargic play last week, and return home for the first time in a month. Utes offense clicks and they win big, 49-13.