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September 11, 2009

Sweet 16? Utes look to extend winning streak.

No. 17 Utah (1-0) heads west this weekend to take on San Jose State (0-1) in the Utes first road test of the season.

In the season opener, Utah used a balanced offensive attack to defeat Utah State 35-17. The Utes rolled up 519 yards of total offense, including 233 yards rushing. San Jose State opened their season in the road, losing to No. 3 USC 56-3 and getting out-gained by almost 500 yards. The Spartans struggled moving the ball all game, gaining just 121 yards of offense, only 9 of which came in the second half.

It will be a homecoming in many ways for Utah defensive tackle Kenape Eliapo. Eliapo is from nearby San Fransisco and his younger brother Ailao Eliapo is the starting right guard for the Spartans. "That started over a year ago," Kenape Eliapo said about some friendly family trash talk. "They all said 'you'd better not let the little brother get you'. It's going to be exciting but I've got to go in like it's just another game and not let the emotions get me."

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

Utah Run Offense vs San Jose State Run Defense
Utah had little trouble moving the ball on the ground against the Aggies, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Matt Asiata led the attack with 156 yards and 2 touchdowns. San Jose State's defensive front had a hard time getting off blocks, giving up 342 yards rushing, and was simply dominated once USC focused on running between the tackles.

Zane Taylor will have his hands full this week. The Utah center is responsible for calling out and adjusting the blocking schemes and with San Jose State running a 4-2-5 defensive scheme he will have to adjust to a lot of looks. Taylor has experience against this type of alignment and should make the proper calls. Walter Watts had a strong game against the Aggies, tying for second on the line with an 86% grade in his first career start. 36 carries is simply too much for Asiata so look for Utah to rotate in backup backs Eddie Wide and Sausan Shakerin more often as well as utilizing the receivers in the running game.

The San Jose State front seven is bigger than what Utah saw in the opener, but not by much. After a game when the only thing stopping the opposition's running game was the goal line, expect the Spartan staff to bring more looks in an effort to contain the run. Even so, Utah's offensive line is bigger and better than the Spartan front and should take control of the game.

San Jose State Run Offense vs Utah Run Defense
Utah's run defense had a hard time stopping the Aggies and Robert Turbin. Utah State ran for 221 yards with Turbin accounting for 148. If there ever was an easy 96-yard touchdown run, Turbin had it when midway through the first quarter he raced untouched down the middle of the field. For one of the toughest run defenses in the country a year ago, Utah looked soft up front. San Jose State could not get anything going on the ground against USC, gaining just 9 net yards, through Patrick Perry ran for 48 yards on 14 carries.

San Jose State's offensive line is solid up the middle. Center Ronnie Castillo is an excellent player and he is flanked by a pair of good guard in Isaac Leatiota and Eliapo. Perry is a solid, physical runner who lacks breakaway speed. That speed is provided by backup Brandon Rutley. The Spartans will also get their receivers involved in the running game.

Utah's front seven is better on paper than they played but they need to show it on the field against the Spartans. The defensive ends were solid but the play of the tackles and linebackers was not up to par. Safety Joe Dale was active against the Aggies, finishing with 7 tackles while leading the team with 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Dale will need to be even more involved in the run game this week.

Utah Pass Offense vs San Jose State Pass Defense
The Utes were very efficient through the air against the Aggies, passing for 286 yards and two touchdowns. Utah's receivers were excellent after the catch, turning short passes into long gains. Since San Jose State couldn't stop the run, they couldn't stop the pass, either. USC gained 278 yards in the air despite throwing the ball only 23 times.

David Reed had himself quite the ball game, catching 10 passes for 172 yards, including a 65-yard catch and run for a touchdown. Terrance Cain turned in arguably Utah's best performance ever for a first time starting quarterback, managing the game while limiting mistakes. Cain was as advertised, completing a high percentage of his passes while taking few risks. Look for Cain to spread the ball around as teams will focus in on Reed. Jereme Brooks will be the beneficiary of a more balanced attack and could have a big game.

Devin Newsome is a very good and versatile player. The Spartans will line Newsome up anywhere in the secondary to take advantage of matchups. Look for him to spend a lot of time on Reed. All-WAC safety Duke Ihenacho is a solid defender that plays the run and pass equally well. The rest of the Spartan secondary is very green, as the other three starters made their first career starts last week. Tanner Burns is a young safety with great potential.

San Jose State Pass Offense vs Utah Pass Defense
Save for one play, Utah's pass defense played very well against the Aggies. The Utes allowed just 121 yards in the air, 48 of which because of one blown assignment. Utah State quarterback Diondre Borel was under pressure most of the night and his sheer athletic ability prevented multiple sacks. San Jose State quarterbacks had a rough day against USC, getting sacked 5 times and throwing for just 112 yards.

The Spartan offensive line had problems protecting the quarterback, especially the tackles. On the few occasions quarterbacks Kyle Reed and Jordan La Secla had time to throw, receivers were not getting open. Kevin Jurovich had the best day of any Spartan on the roster, catching 5 passes for 64 yards. The former safety-turned-receiver is a dangerous threat with the ball in his hands.

Justin Jones must have had quite the summer. The career backup and special teams player has gone from being a role player to Utah's starting nickel back. Jones was abused last year in the few opportunities he received but played tight coverage against the Aggies, recording his second career interception by defending a fade route perfectly. Utah will need Jones to play well again as the Spartans will use a lot of 3 and 4 receiver sets. Ends Christian Cox, Nai Fotu, and Derrick Shelby played well last week and will have the attention of the Spartan quarterbacks.

Special Teams
Utah's special teams answered every major question in a positive manner a week ago. Ben Vroman and Sean Sellwood showed they can take the place of All-American Louie Sakoda, while Luke Matthews provided some excitement in the return game. Matthews did drop one punt but his potential as a threat can not be overlooked. Utah's kick and punt coverage units also played well and Matt Martinez blocked a punt for a safety. Consistency will be key for the Utes, but after one game there does not appear to be any area of weakness in special teams play provided Matthews can cleanly catch punts.

San Jose State punter Philip Zavala's leg is probably still sore from last week. Zavala punted the ball 12 times and kicked off twice against USC and did an admirable job. Zavala netted 41.1 yards per punt and USC returned just 3 of the 12 punts for 28 yards. Rutley is a dangerous return man who will be looking to provide some excitement for the home crowd. Jurovich handles punt returns but only had 3 yards against USC. San Jose State does not place much pressure on opposing kickers and had just one blocked kick a year ago.

Spartan coach Dick Tomey is one of the more respected coaches in the country. Tomey is fourth among active Football Bowl Subdivision coaches with 181 career victories. Only Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno, and Mack Brown have more wins than Tomey. Among his other accomplishments, in 28 years of coaching Tomey has never had back-to-back losing seasons. The experience on the Spartan staff does not end with the head coach. Experienced is the word to describe the San Jose State coaches, as most have spent 20 or more years coaching college football. New linebackers coach Kent Baer alone has over 20 years of experience as a defensive coordinator, but joins the Spartans staff as a position coach.

Utah's staff, on the other hand, is short on experience but long on results. The Utes have the nation's longest active winning streak, now at 15 games, the longest active bowl winning streak at 8 games, and are 22-1 since losing to UNLV early in the 2007 season. Kyle Whittingham prefers to promote from within, so even though there has been some shuffling of duties, most of the staff has been in the program since he took over in 2005.

Star defensive end Koa Misi missed Utah's season opener with a back injury but is expected to play against San Jose State. Despite playing with standout linemen such as Paul Kruger, Martail Burnett, and Gabe Long, many within the program feel that Misi has been the team's best defensive lineman since arriving on campus in 2007. Misi can be a major force anywhere along the defensive line and how he plays in this first game back from injury will be telling for the rest of the season. With a healthy Misi, Utah's front seven is one of the best in the West. Without Misi, they are still good but nowhere near what they could and should be.

Kyle Reed is the biggest wildcard for San Jose State. Should Reed play well, the Spartans will be able to establish rhythm on offense. If not, Tomey will not hesitate to pull him for La Secla. Reed is the better player but can be wildly inconsistent.

A decent road test for the Utes should end with Utah winning by double digits. San Jose State is better than they showed last week against USC, but still not good enough to challenge Utah into the fourth quarter.

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