Utes’ offense will need to stay consistent to take down the Cardinal


— Conor Barry

The Utes are making their first trip to Palo Alto, Calif. to play Stanford since 1996 when Utah walked away with a 17-10 victory behind the powerful rushing game of former Ute Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala.
The 25th-ranked Utes are surely going to need another powerful rushing attack led by Devontae Booker in order to once again leave northern California with a victory against the Cardinal.
For the last several weeks, Utah’s opponents have been keying in on Booker, knowing full well he is the player who usually decides the Utes’ fate on offense. Last weekend against Oregon, Travis Wilson and the Utah offense were finally able to supplement Booker’s running game with some deep passes as well as some backfield passes to — you guessed it — Booker.
It didn’t matter who was catching the ball, according to Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, as long as the passing game finally got some much-needed production.
“We hope the downfield passing continues,” Whittingham said. “Travis had nearly 300 yards on Saturday … we need that to happen. That helped us out in the game Saturday night without a doubt, and that’s why we were in the position we were in the fourth quarter, because we were able to throw the ball better.”
The Utes are going to need to be balanced on offense when they face the most formidable defense in the league. In addition to leading the Pac-12 in nearly every defensive category, the Cardinal are ranked 4th in the country in points allowed, only letting their opponents score an average of 16 points per game.
With injuries to playmakers like Dres Anderson and Tim Patrick, the Utes are going to need to utilize some of their bench players in order to supplement the offensive production. Against Oregon, fans saw a two-back set for the first time this season, and it was successful for both Devontae Booker as well as backfield teammate and former starter Bubba Poole.
Running backs coach Dennis Erickson said the two-back set is going to become increasingly pertinent in the Utah offense.
“We’ve got to get our best players on the field,” Erickson said. “We’re able to do some different things with two backs. We like getting Bubba on the field a little bit more than he has been because he’s also a good football player. Obviously Booker has played better or else he wouldn’t be starting, but [Poole]’s still a good player. We’ve got to try and find a way to get him on the field to make us better offensively. It [the two back set] was always in our plan, but with the injuries we’ll see a lot more of that.”
Defensively, the Utes have a slightly easier task. Stanford is only ranked 94th in the country in scoring offense and is 97th in rushing. After having one of the strongest and most lethal rushing attacks in all of college football the last three years or so, the Cardinal have struggled this year to get the same kind of production. Their rushing attack has been by committee with players like Remound Wright, Barry Sanders Jr. and Kelsey Young all having 40-plus carries.
“Offensively, they’re more of a downhill, power run game. Although they’re not as much as they have been in years past, that’s kind of changed,” Whittingham said. “They’re going more one back, one tight, three wides than they have in recent years and less of the smash-mouth game. They’re throwing the ball more, is the bottom line.”
The most dangerous player for the Cardinal continues to be Ty Montgomery, who scorched the Utes last year on both offense and special teams. This year, Montgomery has hauled in 56 receptions for 549 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver. As a return specialist, Montgomery has returned 13 punts for 238 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s got great size and presents problems for you. As far as what he does for that football team, it’s very similar for what Kaelin [Clay] does for us,” Whittingham said. “We need to be smart in the kicking game. The object is to try and minimize his damage. He’s brought two punts back to the house already this year, so we have to be smart in coverage. It’s a lot like Mariota — you’re never going to completely shut him down. You’ve just got to try and slow him down and not let him go crazy on you.”
Utah safety Brian Blechen knows the Utes will need to stay organized in order to keep players like Montgomery in check, but that this week’s defensive schematics will be far different than they were against the extremely high tempo of the Oregon.
“The Oregon game was fun, they’re going so fast you basically have to line up and play. This week, it’s a little bit different,” Blechen said. “You’re going to have time to see exactly what they’re lined up in and you’ve got to try and be sound on each play.”
The Utes kick off against Stanford at 4 p.m. MT in Palo Alto.
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