Meyer, Utes will take advantage of bye week

By and

Now just two wins away from its first outright conference title since 1957, the U football team is sitting pretty in the Mountain West standings-much prettier, in fact, than almost everyone expected.

Selected to finish near the bottom of the conference almost across the board by both the coaches and the media, the Utes now find themselves bowl-eligible and primed to wear the MWC crown.

Saturday afternoon, the Utes blew a fourth-quarter lead to Air Force but rebounded to win a 45-43 thriller in triple overtime. That win-coupled with Colorado State’s 35-28 loss to Wyoming-put Utah back in control of the Mountain West race, alone in first place at 4-1, 7-2 overall.

Following a 15-tackle effort in the win, U senior safety Dave Revill was named the MWC’s Co-Defensive Player of the Week, marking the second time he has received the honor this season, and the third time in his career.

The team now turns its attention to the Wyoming Cowboys, who have the top passing offense in the conference thanks to the reigning Offensive Player of the Week, senior quarterback Casey Bramlet.

But the Utes will have the advantage of a bye week, giving them an extra week to prepare for one of the most surprising teams in the conference this season.

Considering that the banged up Ute squad is just coming off one of its most physically draining performances of the year, the week off could not have come at a better time.

Not only will it give the Utes an extra week to prepare for a passing attack that has given teams fits this season, it should give U coach Urban Meyer plenty of time to make sure his players’ heads aren’t getting caught up in the romance of a potential conference championship, a goal that gets closer to realization each week.

“The minute we start thinking we’re pretty good, we’re going to lose a game,” Meyer said.

“This conference is too balanced to start worrying about anything but your next opponent.”

Still, there is plenty of reason for optimism and confidence, given how many people counted the Utes out of the hunt going into the season.

Meyer points to parity as a reason why the season hasn’t gone as most had expected.

“Everybody’s the same in this conference,” Meyer said. “They had Air Force and Colorado State at the top and Wyoming, UNLV and us at the bottom-there’s no difference. It’s whoever prepares the best that’s going to win each game.”

But for now, the Utah Utes have to be considered the best team in the conference. Following an embarrassing 2002 campaign that saw them win just two road games all season, the Utes have seen their fortunes turn 180 degrees this year, defeating the MWC’s two best returning teams-Air Force and Colorado State-on the road.

But Meyer and the Utes have to be wary of getting their heads in the clouds now that they are one win away from clinching at least a share of the MWC regular season championship.

Just two weeks ago, the Utes looked to be suffering from a small case of overconfidence in an unimpressive and surprising loss to New Mexico at home on Oct. 25.

In the week prior to that game, following its fifth straight victory, a 28-10 triumph over UNLV in Las Vegas, the Utes finally broke into the national top 25 rankings, and the entire nation began to take note.

The added recognition may or may not have been a factor in the loss, but it has definitely stayed in the back of Meyer’s mind.

“As coach, I’ve been through this kind of thing for 20 years. But for a 19-year-old player, all of a sudden you’re ranked 23rd and start thinking we have all the answers…but we don’t have all the answers. Colorado State just got beat by Wyoming-who’d have thought that was going to happen?” Meyer said.

The Utes will be focusing a fair amount of attention this week on their game plan for Wyoming, particularly the Cowboys’ dangerous passing game, which is a concern considering the fact that two of Utah’s top three cornerbacks are freshmen.

But the extra week will do a lot more for the Utes than simply give them extra preparation time. Meyer gave them a day off on Monday to give the players’ bodies a rest, but it was right back to work Tuesday.

“The goal and intent of this week is to get them healthy and start working on Wyoming,” Meyer said. “I thought the attitude was great. Whenever you give a team a day off, they get a little rusty-throwing, catching, punting, those types of things. So I was worried about giving them too much time off. But they looked good today.”

One of the main concerns on the injury front is, of course, starting tailback Brandon Warfield, who is nursing a sprained MCL, an injury suffered in the loss to the Lobos.

“Brandon’s getting better,” Meyer said. “I don’t think we’ll have him for Wyoming, but there’s a chance we’ll have him for the last one.”

Also out of the lineup is Jesse Boone, who began training camp as the starting left guard and eventually moved to the first-string left tackle spot.

He has missed the last six games of the season with a foot injury.

“The pins come out on Friday and hopefully he’ll be ready to go for Brigham Young and the bowl game,” Meyer said.

Those two absences have made it increasingly difficult for the running game, for obvious reasons.

Freshman tailback Mike Liti took over for Warfield last week, but rushed for just 47 yards on 12 carries in his first chance at starting duty-though he did score two touchdowns.

Liti’s continued improvement in coming weeks will be a major factor in determining whether or not the Utes can win the MWC.

“Young players get better every week,” Meyer said. “My concern is his strength. He’s got to become a stronger player, and he’s got to learn to hold on to the ball better. I think he’s got great talent and he’s had a couple of great runs. But he’s just got to get stronger, and that’s going to come with age.”

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