September 18, 2009

Utes to take on Ducks in tough road test

No. 16 Utah (2-0) travels to the Pacific coast to face Oregon (1-1) Saturday afternoon at 1:30 PM Mountain time.

Utah is coming off a hard fought victory over San Jose State 24-14. The Utes had problems turning the ball over, giving it back to the Spartans three times and missing three field goals. "We're not taking advantage of opportunities, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The two things that are really keeping us from doing that are our redzone offense and turnovers." Utah has not forced many turnovers, either, something the Utah staff has been working on. "We're teaching it the same as we always have," Whittingham said. "Turnovers are a funny thing. You can teach it the exact same way and come up with 35 one year and 15 the next. Probably the main ingredient to takeaways is hustle. We're doing a good job of running to the ball."

Oregon survived a tougher than expected home game against Purdue 38-36 in a game that featured five turnovers and two defensive scores. The Ducks are not playing their best football, and will be looking to make a national statement against the Utes.

Here's a look inside the matchups and players to watch:

Utah Run Offense vs Oregon Run Defense
Utah's leading rusher, Matt Asiate, is questionable for the game Saturday. Asiata injured his shoulder late in the game against San Jose State, and has been limited in practice. Eddie Wide will get the carries in place of Asiata. Wide has 70 yards and a touchdown on the season in limited carries as the top backup. Wide is more of a slasher than a power back like Asiata, and is difficult to get a clean hit on. Redshirt freshman Sausan Shakerin got more than he bargained for in his first career carry, rumbling for 46 yards and coming away with a sprained wrist. "Shak" should be good to go against the Ducks. Utah's offensive line, despite missing guard Caleb Schlauderaff for most of the San Jose State game, has done a great job of run blocking up until the goal line. Utah is averaging 5.4 yards per carry but have been stopped inside the 5 yard line in both games, so look for Utah to get more creative around the goal line.

Oregon's front seven is small but quick and disruptive. The Ducks are not great at stopping the run, giving up 167 yards per game on the ground. Linebacker Casey Matthews leads the team in tackles with 22. If the Ducks want to contain a rushing game that is getting 242 yards per game on the ground, the defensive line must do a better job of keeping blockers from getting to the second level. 6-foot-7, 250 pound defensive tackle Brandon Bair will be key to the running game for both teams.

Oregon Run Offense vs Utah Run Defense
Through the first two games, quarterback Jeremiah Masoli has been the Oregon running game. Masoli leads the team in carries (21) yards (98), touchdowns (2), and has the longest run. With LeGarrette Blount suspended for the season, Oregon has gone with a tailback-by-committee approach. Redshirt freshman LaMichael James has stepped into the starting lineup and has 78 yards on 11 carries. Oregon runs a spread-option attack and will continue to rely on Masoli's running ability to create space up the middle for the backs. The Ducks are only running for 112 yards per game and has an especially difficult time running against Boise State. Breaking in several new players on the offensive line doesn't help, either.

Utah was not very good stopping the run against Utah State, but great against San Jose State. The Utes cleared up some execution issues and held the Spartans to just 22 yards. Utah will face a much tougher test against the Ducks. Discipline will be key, as will Utah linebackers Stevenson Sylvester and Mike Wright. "Sly" and Wright will have to do their best to keep from over-pursuing in the running game and keeping Masoli from getting lose in the secondary. Keep an eye out for safety Joe Dale. Dale leads the team in tackles and is excellent in run support.

Utah Pass Offense vs Oregon Pass Defense
Utah quarterback Terrance Cain has exceeded expectations to this point in the season. Cain has been efficient with his passes, limited mistakes, and shown surprising ability making plays with his feet. Cain ranks 16th nationally in total offense, averaging 312.5 yards per game, and 19th nationally in passing yards with 534. With plenty of weapons at his disposal, Cain does a great job of distributing the ball to his playmakers. David Reed is Utah's best receiver, and has 15 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown. Jereme Brooks had a great game against San Jose State, catching 5 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. With Brooks and Reed drawing the most attention, John Peel has quietly had a solid start to the season with 8 catches for 107 yards and a score. Utah's offensive line has been solid in pass protection giving up just two sacks, but there have been times when they have allowed Cain to come under fire.

Oregon has some good athletes in the secondary, headlined by star corner Walter Thurmond III, but opponents have not had many problems moving the ball down the field trough the air. Opponents are complete over 61% of their passes for 239 yards per game. The pass rush is provided by defensive end Kenny Rowe and no one else. Row has 2.5 of the Ducks 3 sacks, and leads the team in tackles for loss with 2.5. If Oregon can't put more pressure on the quarterback, Cain will have a big day.

Oregon Pass Offense vs Utah Pass Defense
Masoli is an average passer, he can make open throws and occasionally make great throws. Oregon would like to involve tight end Ed Dickson more in the passing game. Dickson is a matchup nightmare with his size (6-foot-5, 243 pounds) and speed. All of Oregon's receivers are tall and fast, but are not as physical as their size would lead one to believe. Jeff Maehl is the Ducks leading receiver with 10 catches for 94 yards. Jamere Holland is second with 6 grabs for 78 yards. Masoli has not thrown a touchdown pass on the season. The Ducks offensive line is young and inexperienced. Combined with an erratic passer who tries to buy time with his feet, sacks are not too difficult to come by. Oregon has given up 4 sacks on the season. Oregon is likely to take a page out of the San Jose State playbook and attack with short, quick passes.

Utah's pass defense struggle mightily against San Jose State. Utah gave up 242 passing yards to a career backup and were flagged for pass interference on several occasions. R.J. Stanford had the most problems in pass coverage, but he was not alone. Robert Johnson dropped an interception while fellow corners Brandon Burton and Justin Jones each gave up big plays in the passing game. Utah's corners need to tighten up and play better, especially on the line of scrimmage to give the pass rush time to get in Masoli's face.

Special Teams
After a solid start in the season opener, Utah's kicking game took a turn for the worse against San Jose State. Ben Vroman missed three field goals and was replaced by walk-on kicker Joe Phillips. "After the Utah State game, we all kind of relaxed a little bit," student coach Louie Sakoda said. "We got a little complacent. Joe, ever since he has been here he has been kicking great. He's got a strong leg and he was highly praised coming out of junior college." Phillips is likely to be Utah's place kicker against Oregon with Vroman handling kickoffs. Sean Sellwood has been a solid punter but could do better at keeping punts out of the endzone. The return game is solid with Luke Matthews returning punts and David Reed[db] returning kicks.

Oregon has similar issues with the kicking game. Kicker [db]Morgan Flint is 1-2 on field goals, missing a 46-yard kick against Purdue. Punter Jackson Rice is solid, and has a 40-yard net average without a touchback. Thurmond handles both kick and punt returns, and is very dangerous. Thurmond is averaging 30 yards per kick return and 10 yards per punt return.

To say Oregon head coach Chip Kelly's first season did not start the way he planned is an understatement. Not only did Kelly's Ducks not show up in the first game allowing Boise State to hold the ball for over 42 minutes, Kelly had to deal with his star running back punching an opponent before being dragged to the locker room. Kelly suspended LeGarrette Blount for the season and has had to go with a running back-by-committee approach to the ground game. Kelly is not new to the Ducks, having been the offensive coordinator the past two seasons. Kelly kept most of the staff intact, including long-time defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.

Utah's two new coordinators are learning on the job, and it is showing in the performance of their units. Dave Schramm's offense has yet to click, though showing flashes of brilliance. The Utes are putting up a lot of yards (12th nationally with 509 yards per game) but not a lot of points (52nd with 29.5 points per game). Defensively, Kalani Sitake's unit is solid but has had some critical breakdowns. Utah's defense will have to step up and force turnovers to keep the Ducks out of the endzone. "Right now, we're not where I think we should be," Sitake said. "I think that's my fault as a coach and I'll make sure they get there soon".

Simply put, Utah's staff does more with less than the Ducks.

Utah has had a generous spirit early in the season, giving the ball back to opponents at an alarming rate. Turnovers have plagued the Utes in both games this season, and have five in two games. Fumbles are the biggest issue, as Utah is tied for 111th nationally with four lost fumbles. Only New Mexico and Hawaii have lost more fumbles than the Utes. Asiata is the biggest culprit, having fumbled twice and losing both. Asiata fumbled twice all of last season. Cain has been good at not forcing passes and has just one interception courtesy of a tipped pass.

Utah's defense not been good at getting the ball back having forced just two turnovers, both on interceptions late in each game. Utah's -3 turnover margin is good enough to tie for 104th nationally. The Utes have been working hard in practice on ball security, the question is will all the practice translate to production on the field.

Oregon has not been great at holding onto the football, either, with four turnovers on the season. The Ducks have lost three fumbles and thrown an interception. Defensively, the Ducks have been great at forcing turnovers with six on the season, and three in each game. Pitting strength against weakness, Oregon has recovered four fumbles including three in the loss to Boise.

Autzen Stadium is one of the more difficult places to play in the country and Oregon is looking to make a statement against a ranked opponent after being embarrassed by Boise. Utah's turnover problems and inexperienced offense will cost them in a close game.

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