Utah (2-3) at Louisville (3-2)
The Sports Network
FACTS & STATS: Site: Papa John's Cardinal Stadium (42,000) -- Louisville, Kentucky. Television: ESPN. Home Record: Utah 2-1, Louisville 2-1. Away Record: Utah 0-2, Louisville 1-1. Neutral Record: Utah 0-0, Louisville 0-0. Conference Record: Utah 0-2, Louisville 0-1. Series Record: Utah leads, 2-0.
GAME NOTES: No longer the darling of the Big East Conference, or even a contender for the national title, the Louisville Cardinals shoot for their second straight win this Friday night when they challenge the Utah Utes in a non-conference affair from Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Back-to-back wins over Murray State and Middle Tennessee to kick off the 2007 campaign saw Louisville score a total of 131 points, but then reality set in as Kentucky slipped by the squad in Lexington. A week later, still reeling from the upset, Louisville was stunned by Syracuse at home, 38-35, dropping the program from the national rankings. Last week the team produced a 29-10 win over NC State on the road to get back into the win column. As for the Utes, they too have gone on a wild roller coaster ride already this season. Two consecutive losses to the likes of Oregon State and Air Force to open the year were followed by a 44-6 blowout of nationally-ranked UCLA at home. A week later Utah was shut out by UNLV, only to come back and defeat Utah State in a 34-18 decision last Saturday. The Utes won both previous games between these two teams, taking a 27-21 triumph on the road in 1997 and then backing it up with a 45-22 romp in Salt Lake City the following season.
Despite tossing a pair of interceptions, Brian Johnson stepped in and threw for 181 yards and two scores as the Utes defeated Utah State for the 10th straight time on Saturday. Johnson, who was making his first start since separating his shoulder in the season opener, converted 18-of-29 passing to keep the offense moving, while Darrell Mack took care of the rushing attack with 132 yards and a touchdown on 26 attempts. With Johnson having been out of the lineup for so much early in the season, the Utes were unable to capitalize on his ability to break out of the pocket and create on his own, which is why Utah is currently ranked last in the Mountain West Conference and 105th in the nation in terms of rushing with 92.4 ypg. Considering Mack is putting up 88.3 ypg all on his own, one has to wonder what's wrong with the rest of the ball carriers for the Utes. Not only is yardage an issue for the rushing attack, the team has also managed a mere two rushing TDs thus far.
Against an offense that is ranked near the bottom nationally in many stats, the Utes limited the visitors to just 139 yards passing and 275 yards of total offense. USU capitalized on only three of five chances inside the red zone and converted a woeful 4-of-17 on third down in the contest. Three Utah players finished with double-digit tackles, as Steve Tate recorded a game-high 13 stops, two of which came behind the line of scrimmage. Kyle Brady and Paul Kruger chipped in with 10 tackles apiece as well. The pass defense has been especially strong for the Utes so far in 2007, ranking first in the MWC and ninth in the country this week with only 151.6 ypg allowed. However, with 198 ypg being given up on the ground, the secondary is often called upon to make plays up the field when the first lines of defense can't get the job done. Averaging better than eight tackles per game, Tate leads the group in that department, while Martail Burnett has a team-best three sacks on just 19 stops.
Brian Brohm showed he was a mere mortal on Saturday, following up a career-best effort against Syracuse with just 251 yards passing and one touchdown in the win over NC State. The yardage total for Brohm, who converted 20-of-33 attempts, was his lowest amount since putting up just 163 yards in the loss to Rutgers last season. However, taking some of the weight from Brohm's shoulders was the rushing attack of the Cardinals which produced 247 yards, of which 112 was credited to Brock Bolen for a new career-high on his part. Even with his less-than-stellar effort over the weekend, Brohm is still the star of the show in Louisville, getting the passing attack to first in the Big East Conference and third in the nation with 393.4 ypg. With the running game picking up the pace and posting 202 ypg to rank second in the conference, the entire package is worth an astounding 595.4 ypg to rank second in the country. While the scoring offense is seventh in the nation with 45.8 ypg, one has to remember that a large part of that damage took place against Murray State (73 points) and Middle Tennessee (58).
After being exploited in a number of games, the Louisville defense stepped up to the challenge of a new opponent and held the Wolfpack to just 85 yards rushing. In addition, the Cardinals also forced three fumbles and came away with a pair of interceptions. Lamar Myles was credited with a team-high 11 tackles for the Cardinals and also recovered two fumbles for the unit, while Preston Smith contributed two sacks on just five stops. For his only tackle of the game Earl Heyman also registered a sack, not to mention a forced fumble and a recovery. The name of the game in Louisville is again offense for the Cardinals in 2007 and considering how poorly the pass defense has been it is probably safe to say that the team would rather focus on the positives anyway. However, it is hard to overlook the fact that the pass defense is ranked eighth in the conference and 103rd in the country with 275.6 ypg. Although, part of that stems from the fact that opponents had to pass early and often just to keep pace with Brohm and the offense.
More than anything the Cardinals want to prove to their fans that all is not lost this season. While a national title may be out of the question, taking care of Utah is not, which is what will happen on Friday night.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Louisville 41, Utah 24
Re: Friday Football
Utah at Louisville
By Brian Edwards
After dodging a three-game losing streak by winning at N.C. St. last week, Louisville (3-2 straight up, 1-3 against the spread) returns home Friday to take on Utah from out of the Mountain West Conference.
Most sports books are listing the Cardinals as 15-point favorites with a total of 61. Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened the total at 65. The Utes are plus 500 on the money line (risk $100 to win $500 if they win outright).
Steve Kragthorpe has come under heavy scrutiny in his first year after replacing Bobby Petrino, who enjoyed an outstanding 41-9 record in four seasons at Louisville.
In a way, it was somewhat of a relief when Petrino bolted for the Falcons. Ever since his arrival in the Bluegrass State, Petrino’s name was mentioned for nearly every elite college job that opened.
He had flirted with LSU, Notre Dame and Auburn. He even turned down $18 million from Al Davis to become the Raiders coach.
But by the time Arthur Blank came calling, Petrino had done enough for the U of L faithful, and it wasn’t as if he was leaving for another college job. And hey, wouldn’t it be nice to bring in some stability?
But that thought process went out the window a couple of weeks ago. Giving up 42 points to Middle Tennessee was one thing, but losing to in-state rival Kentucky was nearly inconceivable.
Losing to Syracuse? At home? That was downright sinful.
Petrino had built the Cardinals into a powerhouse. QB Brian Brohm had returned for his senior season. How could it fall apart so quickly?
But all of those things happened. Louisville had to outscore MTSU in a 58-42 ‘non-covering’ victory as a 41-point ‘chalk.’ The Cardinals gave up a last-minute score and lost 40-34 at UK as six-point favorites.
Then there was the Syracuse debacle. The ‘Cuse had lost four straight games by margins of 21 points or more. Nevertheless, the Orange came to Papa John’s Stadium and captured a 38-35 win as a 37-point underdog.
Alas, Kragthorpe and Co. got back into the win column last week, even covering the spread for the first time in a 29-10 win in Raleigh as a nine-point favorite. Brohm threw for 251 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Anthony Allen (18 carries, 112 yards) and Brock Bolen (85 rushing yards) combined for 197 yards on the ground.
Also, the Cardinals saw Big East rivals West Virginia and Rutgers go down in upset fashion. Therefore, they know a conference title is still well within their grasp.
But Louisville needs to concentrate on its own issues, starting with Friday’s tilt against Utah (2-3 SU, 1-4 ATS) that leads into back-to-back road games against unbeaten Cincy and UConn.
Utah has won two of its last three games after dropping its first two outings. The Utes are off a 34-18 win over Utah State, but they failed to cover the number as 21-point favorites.
Brian Johnson made his first start at QB since separating his shoulder in the season opener. Johnson threw for 181 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Utah has been outscored 51-7 in its road games this year. The Utes opened the season with a 24-7 loss at Oregon St., and they also dropped a 27-0 decision at UNLV.
On the flip side, the Utes have been serious money makers in spots when they are catching a bunch of points. In fact, they destroyed UCLA by a 44-6 count as 16 ½-point home underdogs on Sept. 22.
Dating back even further, Utah has a 5-0 spread record as a double-digit underdog since 1997. When listed as ‘dogs of 8 ½ points or more, the Utes are 8-0 ATS dating back to ’97.
Louisville running back George Stripling has been suspended for one game, the University announced Wednesday morning. Stripling was disciplined for an unspecified violation of team rules.
He is the team’s second-leading rusher with 177 yards and one touchdown. Stripling is the Cardinals’ speed back, offering a change of pace from bigger RBs like Allen and Bolen.
Stripling is the third player disciplined by Kragthorpe in the last two weeks. LB Willie Williams was dismissed from school following his arrest for marijuana possession, while WR JaJuan Spillman was suspended indefinitely.
Kick-off is slated for 8:00 p.m. Eastern on Friday. ESPN will provide the telecast.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
--Auburn has won 12 in a row over Vandy. However, the Commodores are 11-2 ATS in their last 13 games as road underdogs. Auburn All-American DE Quentin Groves is “out.” The Tigers are 7 ½-point favorites at most books.
--I have to give cohort Christian Alexander credit for this factoid he passed along earlier in the week: Nine straight games in the Red River Rivalry have been decided by double digits.
--Oklahoma State is 2-7 ATS as a road ‘dog under Mike Gundy. The Cowboys are six-point underdogs for this week’s trip to College Station.
--Kansas has lost 20 of its last 22 Big 12 road games.
--Nebraska is 2-4 ATS in six games as a road underdog under Bill Callahan. The Cornhuskers are seven-point ‘dogs Saturday at Missouri.
--Georgia has won 23 of 26 true road games during Mark Richt’s tenure. The Dawgs are in Knoxville this weekend.
--Tennessee has an abysmal 12-26 spread record in its last 38 games as a home ‘chalk.’
Re: Friday Football
Will it be up or down tonight at Louisville?
Before the start of the season, Utah's matchup with Louisville was regarded as its marquee game this year.
Although that might have changed a little bit in the public's eye because of Utah's disappointing 2-3 start and Louisville's fall from the Top-25, the players still view the game to be their biggest.
"I'm extremely anxious," Utah quarterback Brian Johnson said. "I've had this game circled on my calendar all year, so I'm excited to play and have a great game. It's one of the biggest games I've played in. It's a big game for us, and it's a big game for the program to show everybody what we're all about."
Like Utah, the Cardinals have had a roller-coaster season. They began the season ranked 10th in the AP poll and climbed up to No. 8 following a pair of convincing wins.
But every roller coaster eventually hits a low point. Louisville's came in the form of consecutive losses to Kentucky and Syracuse. Both of the defeats were close, but the Cardinals' defense couldn't pull it together when it mattered most, and the result was a clean drop out of the national rankings.
"Defensively, they've been a little up and down this year," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "They've given up quite a bit, some games, but they settled down and played a good football game last Saturday against NC State."
One thing that has been consistent for the Cardinals is the offense, led by Heisman candidate Brian Brohm. The senior has passed an average of 389.6 yards and 3.3 touchdowns per game this season and ranks second in the nation in total passing yards. Brohm's main target is speedy wide receiver Harry Douglas, who averages 169.8 receiving yards per game.
"It's going to be hard to stop an offense that's as good as they are, but we're going to try to get Brian (Brohm) out of the pocket," Utah defensive tackle Gabe Long said. "If he's comfortable in there, he's going to pick us apart. But if we can get some pressure on him, it'll be a good game."
Brohm faces a Utah pass defense that has proved solid thus far, but has yet to be tested with a dynamic aerial attack.
"They've played well so far this year, but there hasn't been a challenge like the one (our defense has) got in front of them right now," Whittingham said. "This team is in the top three or four in the nation in passing offense, so it'll be interesting to see how this secondary responds."
Complementing the Cardinals' prolific passing attack is a bruising running game. Sophomore Anthony Allen (6-foot-1, 232 lbs.) leads the team from his tailback position, averaging 115.6 yards per game.
Louisville ranks second in the nation in total offense, averaging 595.4 yards per game.
So, with no obvious flaws in the Louisville offense and an unproven Utah defense on his hands, just how does Whittingham plan to stop the Cardinals' high-power attack?
"I don't know if you try to stop it so much as you try to slow it down," Whittingham said. "You just try to keep it from going crazy on you. The best place for their offense is on the sidelines, so the more time our offense is on the field, the more likely we are to win."
The emergence of Darrell Mack at running back will surely help the Utes as they try to play ball control offense against the Cardinals.
Last week, the junior rushed the ball 26 times for a career-high 132 yards and a touchdown in a 34-18 win over Utah State. Whittingham expects Mack to take on a much larger role this week against Louisville.
"We will be giving them a heavy dosage of Darrell Mack this week," Whittingham said.
If the Utes can't control the clock, the Cardinals will likely do what they've done this entire season -- score points in bunches. Then all Utah can do is try to keep up.
"They usually win shootouts," Whittingham said. "That's something that's impossible to avoid sometimes when you're playing an offense that's as high-octane as they are. But the ideal situation for us is to not get into a shootout."
The meeting is the first and only Utah game that will be televised on a major national network (ESPN), giving the Utes a chance to showcase their abilities for the masses.
"A win would be huge for this program," Johnson said. "We've had one good win against a national powerhouse this year, so why not have another? They are a very talented group of guys, though, so we'll definitely have our hands full."
Re: Friday Football
What bettors need to know: Utah at Louisville
Utah is excited about facing Brian Bohm, Louisville’s star quarterback. It will be the season’s biggest test so far for the Utes’ 18th-ranked passing defense (151.6 yards per game).
"We get to see what we have," defensive end Paul Kruger told Lya Bodroska of the Salt Lake Tribune. "We've been practicing hard and I feel like we're prepared. We have to get good pressure on him and make sure he is feeling us every time he gets the ball."
Utah safety Robert Johnson could return to the Utes’ lineup Saturday against the Cardinals. Johnson dislocated his shoulder against the UCLA Bruins. The Tribune reports that Johnson practiced with a shoulder brace the last two days.
Johnson had two interceptions with 26 yards in the Utes’ 44-17 win over UCLA.
JaJuan is gone
Receiver/kick returner JaJuan Spillman was recently suspended indefinitely by Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe. Kragthorpe gave no reason for move.
Spillman has nine catches for 64 yards and has rushed four times for 42 yards. He also averaged 22.2 yards on 18 kick returns and 8.8 yards on five punt returns.
"It just simply reconfigures a few things, in terms of some guys maybe stepping up and playing a little bit more," Kragthorpe told reporters. Kragthorpe named sophomore receiver Trent Guy as a potential replacement for Spillman.
Guy has four catches for 82 yards and no touchdowns this season. He also has nine kick returns for 253 yards and four punt returns for 76 yards.
Cardinals ‘D’ on the rise
There is no question that Louisville, led by Bohm, has one of the best offenses in college football. The Cardinals’ Achilles heel has been their defense.
The ‘D’ ranks 85th in yards (417 yards per game) and 76th in scoring (28 points per game), but is showing significant improvement since a 40-34 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats.
"Mistakes are going to be made," coach Kragthorpe told reporters. "We have to get those mistakes fixed and not repeat those again and I thought we did a better objective of that against North Carolina State."
Louisville held the North Carolina State Wolf Pack to 85 rushing yards, 249 passing yards and forced five turnovers. It also hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown in two games.
Head to head
Friday’s matchup will mark the third meeting between Utah and Lousiville. The Utes won both games and are 1-0 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
The Cardinals have historically struggled against the Mountain West Conference. Lousiville is 0-2 against Utah, 1-2 against the Colorado State Rams, and 1-3 versus the Texas Christian Horned Frogs and the Wyoming Cowboys
Re: Friday Football
Utah: Game info
Salt Lake Tribune
Utah at Louisville
* Series history: Utah leads 2-0
* Last meeting: Utah, 45-22 (Sept. 12, 1998)
* About the Utes: They are coming off a 34-18 win over Utah State. . . . Safety Robert Johnson (shoulder) and linebacker Joe Jiannoni (ankle) will be game-time decisions. Lineman Zeke Tuinei-Wily is out for three to four weeks with mono. . . . Utah hasn't won back-to-back games since beating Colorado State and Air Force in November of last year. . . . This is Utah's only ESPN game this season.
* About the Cardinals: They are coming off a 29-10 win at North Carolina State last week. . . . Started the season ranked No. 10 in the AP poll, then fell out after losses to Kentucky and Syracuse. . . . Backup receiver JaJuan Spillman and backup tailback George Stripling have been suspended for the game for team violations.
* Home-field advantage: The only game the teams have played in Louisville was in 1997, with the Utes winning 27-21. The Utes haven't won on the road this year, while Louisville had a 20-game home winning streak snapped by Syracuse. The game in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium is a sellout (42,000).
* Utah has to do a better job of controlling the ball against the Cardinals and keep Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm on the sidelines as much as possible. Utah's defense doesn't have the depth to stay on the field for long periods of time and will wear down like it did against Oregon State if the offense can't give it some breaks by putting together some long drives.
Key for Louisville
The Utes haven't produced when they've been put in a catchup role, so if the Cardinals can score quickly, Brohm and Co. could be in for another big statistical night.
Key matchup for U. on offense
Darrell Mack rushed for 132 yards on 26 carries against Utah State and will have to have another big night for the Utes if they want to keep pace with the Cardinals. Louisville's defense is giving up 141.4 rushing yards a game, but has been much improved in the last two games holding opponents to 63.5 yards with no rushing touchdowns.
Key matchup for U. on defense
It's doubtful the Utes can stop Brohm altogether, but what they can do is try and take away his favorite target, senior receiver Harry Douglas, who has had seven straight 100-plus receiving games. He is fourth all-time on Louisville's list of career receiving yards with 2,544.
Key numbers 5-0
The Utes are 5-0 against current Big East opponents. The last time the Utes faced a Big East team was in the Fiesta Bowl, when they beat Pittsburgh 35-7 to finish the 2004 season 12-0.
Re: Friday Football
A look at the Utah defense
If you're looking for a visual preview of the Utah defense the solution is pretty simple, just rewatch last week's game against NC State. Just like Mike Archer's bunch, the Utes play a base 4-3, boast a stout secondary and a front seven that is susceptible to allowing big games on the ground.
Here's to a similar result...except better passing...and announcing
Utah leads the Mountain West and ranks ninth in the country in passing defense, allowing just 151.6 yards of offense through the air a game. Only one opponent has passed for more than 200 yards on the Utes, and that was UCLA which passed for 290 while playing catch-up in the second half. No one else has thrown for more than 144 yards.
The standout in the secondary is senior free safety Steve Tate, who leads the team and is third in the conference with 42 tackles. Tate plays safety for Utah the same way Eric Wicks does for West Virginia, handling his coverage duties but also coming on blitzes and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Last week against Utah State he made 13 tackles and two tackles for loss.
Tate has been studying film of Brian Brohm and the Louisville passing attack all week, but says that his main focus heading into the game is slowing down Anthony Allen and the Cardinal running game.
"First and foremost, we've got to stop the run," he said. "I know that sounds weird, but Louisville does run the ball."
Sophomore strong safety Robert Johnson has missed the last two games after dislocating his shoulder against UCLA in a game where he still managed to intercept two passes. He has practiced with a shoulder brace the last two days, and could be cleared to play some time before kickoff. Johnson was initially replaced by Joe Dale, but after Dale suffered a slight concussion (he's listed as probable for tonight), junior RJ Rice stepped up and made nine tackles and two tackles for loss against Utah State in a game where he made his first collegiate start.
The Utes are very solid at corner, where sophomore Sean Smith is tied for the league lead in interceptions with three. Smith is fast enough that he began his career at Utah as a running back, but he also possesses the size (6-3) and the leaping ability (35 inch vertical) to match up favorably with the likes of Mario Urrutia and Scott Long.
Drawing the unenviable task of shadowing Harry Douglas (assuming he plays) is speedy (4.32 40) junior Brice McCain, who leads the team in pass breakups. He is a true man-to-man cover corner in the mold of Cincinnati's Mike Mickens, and has been a major contributor during each of his three seasons in Salt Lake. He's had a lot of success shutting down the opposing quarterback's go-to-guy this far this season, but going up against the nation's second-leading receiver is likely the tallest task McCain has ever been handed.
"Hands down, he's the best I've faced," McCain said.
When asked if he thought Louisville might overlook Utah the same way they overlooked Syracuse, McCain was defiant.
"I hope not," he said. "We want them bringing their 'A' game. We're going to bring ours."
Like most 4-3 defenses, Utah's is predicated on its linebackers plugging holes and making the majority of the team's tackles, so based on that school of thought the senior trio of Kyle Brady, Joe Jiannoni and Malakai Mokofisi are the players most responsible for the Utes' dismal national ranking of 96 in rush defense.
Brady, for his part, is second on the team in total tackles (39), and solo tackles (22). The most versatile of the group, he began his collegiate career playing receiver and running back on the scout team before finding his niche at the rover position. Utah's "Mr. Football" in 2002, Brady holds the state's all-time interception record with 31. This is the guy you can expect to see shadowing Allen or covering the flats when someone else is blitzing.
Perhaps the top defensive NFL prospect on the team, Jiannoni has started at middle linebacker since his sophomore season. He earned a second-team all-conference nod a year ago by notching 92 tackles, good for second best on the team even though he missed a pair of games due to injury. What he lacks in height - he's only 6-feet-tall - he more than makes up for in strength (rock solid 235 lbs), speed and aggression. Basically, he's the Utah equivalent of Lamar Myles. After coming through on his pregame guarantee of a victory over UCLA, Jiannoni suffered an ankle injury that forced him to play sparingly against UNLV and miss the Utah State game entirely. He is set to start tonight.
While Jiannoni was out, Brady moved over to middle linebacker and talented sophomore Stevenson Sylvester (backwards name much?) held down the rover position. Sylvester, now back in his familiar role as the top backup at each of the three linebacker positions, leads Utah in tackles for loss with 5.5, and ranks fourth on the team in total tackles with 31.
The starter at stud is Mokofisi, who has recorded just 15 tackles despite being healthy for all five games. He earned a starting spot by virtue of his size (6-2, 243) and experience, but if he doesn't step up and become more of a run-stopper then you'd have to think a younger guy with the talent of Sylvester is going to to start to steal more and more of his playing time as the year wears on (assuming Brady and Jiannoni are both healthy).
Unlike the rest of the defense, Utah's defensive line is young and relatively deep. The Utes have used 13 different defensive lineman in five games, and three of the top four tacklers on the line are either freshmen or sophomores.
Redshirt freshman right end Paul Kruger is third on the team and first on the line with 34 tackles, and has made three tackles for loss, intercepted a pass, and recovered a fumble. He's shown improvement with each game, making eight tackles two weeks ago against UNLV, and ten last week against Utah State. Kruger was a highly-touted quarterback when he signed with Utah in 2004, but went on an LDS church mission and apparently got jacked as hell and came back wanting to hit people.
Kruger said earlier this week that he was looking forward to the task of trying to get pressure on Brohm to help slow down the Louisville passing game.
"We get to see what we have," he said. "We've been practicing hard and I feel like we're prepared. We have to get good pressure on him and make sure he is feeling us every time he gets the ball."
Senior left end Martail Burnett is likely one of the most athletic players Breno Giacomini will be forced to tangle with this season. He began his Utah career as a safety, but has added 50 pounds in four years to become an all-conference candidate. The most fearsome pass rusher on the team, Burnett is tied for the conference lead in sacks with three, and possesses the same kind of speed as Syracuse's Jameel McClain, who gave the Cards fits two weeks ago.
Senior nose tackle Gabe Long returned to the starting lineup last weekend after missing two games because of a knee injury. Much like Earl Heyman, he's best suited to play tackle because of his size (6-3, 295), but has enough speed to be effective at end as well. Defensive coordinator Gary Andersen hopes that Long's return will lead to improvement against the run, but Long knows that he also has to help put pressure on Brohm for the defense to remain successful against the pass.
"If you keep him in the pocket, he'll pick you apart," Long said. "If we get him out of the pocket, we can play with them. That's my job -- to get the quarterback to scramble."
The fourth starter on the line is sophomore Junior College transfer Koa Misi, who earned the starting tackle job before the UCLA upset, and has responded with 21 tackles in his last three games. He dislocated a finger two weeks ago, but should be fine for tonight's game.
Kenape Eliapo and Greg Newman should also see significant time on the line.
Rushing Defense: 198 ypg (96)
Passing Defense: 151.6 ypg (9)
Pass Efficiency Defense: 95.2 (11)
Total Defense: 349.6 ypg (49)
Scoring Defense: 19 ppg (T-29)
Re: Friday Football
A look at the Utah offense
Analyzing the offense of a team that followed a 44-6 victory over UCLA with a 27-0 loss to UNLV is every bit as difficult as you'd expect. Throw the now infamous Louisville Cardinal defense into the mix and it becomes even more difficult to predict how the visiting half of the scoreboard will look inside PJCS on Friday night.
Setting aside the mass amount of indefinites for the time being, here's what we do know about a Utah offense that returned 10 starters from its Armed Forces Bowl championship team (they beat Tulsa) of a year ago.
The first thing we know is that they run mainly a spread offense, so already we've got a red flag. The second is that they have a very capable, albeit rusty, quarterback in charge of making that spread attack work.
Heading into the season, junior quarterback Brian Johnson was thought by many to be the best signal caller in the Mountain West Conference despite missing all of 2006 while recovering from knee surgery. The 2005 All-MWC performer was the victim of bad fortune again in Utah's season-opening loss to Oregon State, when he suffered a thumb injury (EDIT: he separated his right shoulder, I was thinking of Pitt's Bill Stull who hurt his thumb...my bad) that forced him to miss the Utes' next three games. He returned to action last week against Utah State and went 18-of-29 for 181 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 34-18 win.
Johnson isn't overly imposing in stature (6-1, 210-pounds), but he has a strong, accurate arm to go with some sensational athleticism. Each quality helped him finish the 2005 season ranked fourth in the country in total offense, averaging 337 yards on his own per game.
If Johnson goes down again then the ball will go to senior Tommy Grady, who struggled with the team captain out. Grady, a 6-7 big-armed transfer from Oklahoma, completed just 50% of his passes (57-of-114) and threw four touchdowns against three interceptions in the three and-a-half games Johnson was unavailable. Three of his four TD passes naturally came in the outlier game against UCLA where he completed 17-of-30 passes for 246 yards and did not throw a pick.
Both quarterbacks have been keen on spreading the ball around this season, but if there is a go-to-guy it's former walk-on Derrek Richards. More known for his work as a return man, the senior has used his blazing 4.25 speed to catch 20 passes for a team-high 242 yards and one touchdown. A U of L secondary that has been just a tad susceptible to the big play should probably be honed in on this guy.
Utah's somewhat surprising leader in receptions is another former walk-on, junior Bradon Godfrey. Early in the season with the receiving corps plagued by drops and defenses locking in on Richards, it was Godfrey who distanced himself from the pack and has emerged as the Utes' most trusted possession receiver, catching 21 balls for 195 yards. He's not going to kill you up and down the sidelines, but he's certainly not afraid to go over the middle and then pound out some tough yards after the catch.
A big-time performer in each of his three seasons in Salt Lake, senior Brian Hernandez is the only other Utes receiver with more than ten catches, hauling in 19 passes for 187 yards. Hernandez, who has been slowed by injuries since transferring from Georgia Tech after his freshman season, was one of the many stars in the UCLA upset, making 11 catches and racking up 120 yards.
Utah likes to get the running back involved in the passing attack, as evidenced by Darrell Mack - who has only been the starting tailback for three games - ranking fourth on the team in receptions with nine and tied for first in receiving touchdowns with two. Louisville is still yet to figure out how to defend the middle of the field, especially on plays where they blitz at least one linebacker, so don't be surprised to see several screens or passing plays drawn up for Mack to slip unnoticed from the backfield into the open middle.
As far as hard stats are concerned, Utah ranks 73rd in the country in passing offense (211.6 ypg) and 104th in total offense (304 ypg), but Johnson's injury has a great deal to do with that. Grady isn't fit to run the spread, so when Johnson went down in the opener it made a great deal of the Utes' August practice time virtually useless. This is another reason this game is scary for us, because don't think for a second that OC Andy Ludwig doesn't have a bundle of plays he was planning on unveiling against UCLA that have remained hidden because of Johnson's absence. For the first time all season Utah can run the type of offense they envisioned when they started camp, and that could mean trouble for a defense that struggled about as much as you can struggle against the far inferior spread attacks of Middle Tennessee State and Syracuse.
Mack was originally set to redshirt this season, but after Matt Asiata broke his leg in the season opener, and both Ray Stowers and Darryl Poston had little to no success against Oregon State and Air Force, he was informed that he would be getting the start against UCLA. The 6-0, 219-pound junior responded by torching the Bruins for 107 yards on the ground and taking a Grady pass the distance for his first touchdown to lead the 38-point route.
He has seen similar success in the subsequent two games, rushing for 92 yards on 21 carries against UNLV, and exploding for 133 against Utah State on his way to earning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week honors. Far from a burner, Mack runs very low and is very physical, earning every yard he gains.
"Darrell has certainly stepped forward the last three weeks and has done a nice job carrying the bulk of the load in the run game," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He had his best performance Saturday. If we can keep getting the production out of him that we've gotten the last three weeks, then the running game certainly is getting close to where we need it to be."
The Ute offense produced only 73 yards rushing against Air Force, and just 18 more against Oregon State, but Mack has now accounted for 353 of Utah's 462 rushing yards this season. Still, the rushing attack's early futility has hurt it in the national rankings, where Utah ranks 105th out of 119 teams in rushing offense.
While Whittingham has been pleased with Mack's emergence, he's stressed this week the need for rushing yards to come from someone other than the tailback. We already know that Johnson is going to run, but we should also expect to see some jet sweeps, as well as some misdirection out of two-back shotgun sets. Stowers reportedly put on a show at camp this summer, so he certainly has the potential to be a weapon if Whittingham or Ludwig chooses to mix things up or go double back at some point in the game.
The Utes boast a very experienced offensive line led by three-year junior starter Robert Conley. He was a preseason all-conference selection, and recorded a career-high eight knockdowns and six pancakes last week against Utah State. Sophomore Zane Beadles is a two-year starter who moved from left guard to left tackle after a season-ending injury to senior Jason Boone in camp. The man holding down the most important position on the line has played every snap in four of Utah's five games. Experienced senior center Kyle Gunther, talented freshman left guard Caleb Schlauderaff, and junior right tackle Dustin Hentsel make up the rest of the unit.
The O-line was dominated to the sound of 10 sacks in three games before buckling down to allow just one against both UNLV and Utah State. The unit's improvement has also correlated directly with the emergence of Mack at running back.
The Cards have only gotten to the quarterback eight times this season, but brought more pressure last week against NC State than they had all year. Whether or not this trend continues against a QB as dangerous as Johnson will be something to look for. Louisville has got to stop the run so it can bring pressure, and Utah has got to establish it to keep the Cardinal secondary honest, so the matchup of U of L's rearranged D-line versus UU's (I almost made it through the whole thing without doing it) veteran O-line will be huge.
Rushing Offense: 92.4 (105)
Passing Offense: 211.6 (73)
Total Offense: 304 (104)
Scoring Offense: 19.4 (T-102)
Turnover Margin: +.6 (T-36)
Passing Efficiency: 113.64 (85)
Sacks Allowed: 2.4 (T-84)
Re: Friday Football
Heyman, Gnat help Cards turn up pressure
Through the first four games this season, playing quarterback against the University of Louisville defense was a relatively stress-free job.
But the Cardinals (3-2) began turning up the pressure last week at North Carolina State. They had three sacks, or two fewer than they had managed all season until then.
Key changes to the defensive front -- including the play of Earl Heyman and Rodney Gnat -- helped increase the heat. The Cards hope to make Utah quarterback Brian Johnson similarly uncomfortable tonight when the Utes (2-3) come to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien said after last week's 29-10 loss that U of L had blitzed more than he had seen on film. Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe agreed -- to a point.
"It wasn't an astronomical change," he said. "We pressured a little differently, more than just pressuring more. We pressured with some different guys."
Two of those guys were Heyman and Gnat, who started at end for the first time this season. Heyman slid over from tackle, as he did occasionally last year, and came up with a sack and a forced fumble.
Heyman's move came out of necessity, with Peanut Whitehead not making the trip for personal reasons and Maurice Mitchell out with an undisclosed injury. But the 6-foot-3, 290-pound junior gave coaches something to think about with his play at end.
"I'm the swingman," said Heyman, who played end at Ballard High School. "I can play end, drop over and play tackle or nose, wherever they need me."
Heyman said he studies every position on the defense, including linebackers and the secondary, when he watches film. Others marvel at his versatility.
"It took me my whole redshirt freshman year just to learn rush end," Gnat said. "I can only imagine what Earl goes through. But he's a smart kid."
Gnat, a 6-3, 245-pounder from Jacksonville, Fla., earned his first start in just his fifth career game last week. Though he wasn't credited with a tackle, he made his presence felt by getting into the backfield several times.
"Rodney can run fast for a defensive lineman," said Mark Nelson, who coaches that unit for the Cardinals. "He can come off the ball, and he can get an edge. We have other guys that can do it, too. But Rodney is maybe a little bit faster, so that helps us."
Gnat is also the smallest of the Cards' defensive ends, so he has to concentrate on his technique.
"Staying low is one of the main things I have to do out there," he said. "I'm not as heavy as some of the other guys, so it's kind of easy to get pushed around a little bit if I stand straight up. I have to keep that in the back of my mind on every play."
Utah, which lost starting left tackle Jason Boone to a knee injury during fall camp, allowed 10 sacks in its first three games. But the Utes' brutes tightened up in their past two games, giving up one sack against both Nevada-Las Vegas and Utah State.
The return of Johnson, who separated his shoulder in the season opener, also helps. Utah runs a spread offense that retains some elements from former coach Urban Meyer, who led the school to an undefeated season and the 2005 Fiesta Bowl before taking over at Florida. Johnson rushed for 478 yards and eight touchdowns in 2005, his last full season before knee surgery.
"They kind of have a speed attack, and they like to run their quarterback," Heyman said. "We've got to work on our contain a lot more."
Heyman said he'll probably start off at tackle this week and maybe play end. Gnat might not start, with Whitehead and possibly Mitchell returning to action. Whatever new changes are made, the Cards hope pressuring the opposing quarterback becomes a constant.
"The No. 1 thing," Nelson said, "is to keep improving the defense."