Home sweet home

The Rose Bowl wasn’t too friendly to the U football team last week, as UCLA sent the Utes home hanging their heads and licking their wounds. But the Utes hope Rice-Eccles Stadium makes for a friendlier venue this Saturday as they host their home opener against Northern Arizona.

But while the Utes may have underachieved last week, their opponent did the opposite, taking a 14-14 tie into the fourth quarter against the Arizona State Sun Devils before falling, 35-14. Still, the Lumberjacks are a Division I-AA team, and the Utes haven’t lost a home opener in six years-and that trend is expected to continue. But to do so, the Ute secondary, paced by all-MWC senior Eric Weddle, will have to slow down an offensive combination that proved lethal in last week’s showdown with Arizona State.

Senior quarterback Jason Murrietta and junior wideout Alex Watson make up a passing combo that could give Utah fits if its performance is anything like that of one week ago. U head coach Kyle Whittingham saw Watson post 206 yards against the ASU secondary-and is focusing on stopping him, thus stopping the Lumberjack offense.

“(Watson) is an outstanding receiver. He caught 200-yards-plus worth of balls against ASU,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got to make sure he’s our focal point.”

Last season, several games came down to whether or not the Utes could stop the pass, and that could be precisely the deciding factor again this Saturday. The 2005 Utes suffered a 28-19 defeat at home to San Diego State last October, in large part because standout wide receiver Jeff Webb lit the U secondary up for 142 yards on nine catches, including a pair of touchdown grabs. However, just two weeks later, with Weddle going one-on-one against all-MWC wideout Jovon Bouknight, the Utes held the Wyoming star to four catches and 43 yards in a 43-13 Utah rout. It was much the same story in last year’s Emerald Bowl, as Georgia Tech’s Calvin Johnson was limited to just two receptions.

The Utes may have to repeat that kind of performance to stop Watson, who had 11 catches against ASU-two short of his career high. Not only that, but the Lumberjacks like to employ a no-huddle offense, which will obviously limit Utah’s substitutions and mid-drive adjustments. The Utes, though, aren’t too worried about handling NAU’s style of play.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge. We’ve faced it before. Wyoming has done it on and off, amongst other teams we’ve played. We have a plan of attack for how we practice that,” Whittingham said. “It presents a little bit of a problem, rather than just a normal-pace, huddle-up offense. We’ve played it before and we have our own methods of how we deal with it. We don’t feel like it is going to be a major issue.”

What may be a major issue for Northern Arizona is its rushing attack. The Lumberjack backs managed just 53 yards rushing against the Sun Devils, with freshman starter Alex Henderson leading the way with a mere 44 yards on 14 carries. The Ute defense had its own set of issues last week, but the run-stoppers were more than up to the task, holding Chris Markey and the UCLA attack to just 2.6 yards per carry.

“We do that all year long and our rush defense is going to be one of the best, if not the best, in the conference,” Whittingham said.

In fact, the play along both lines was relatively strong for Utah despite the loss. The team didn’t allow a single sack despite an erratic passing attack. Of course, strong efforts in the trenches didn’t do the Utes much good last week. This Saturday, Whittingham and Co. will be looking for an improved performance from the receiving corps-in which the coach expressed disappointment after Saturday’s loss-and the defensive backfield. With junior wideout Brian Hernandez and senior safety Steve Tate out of action this Saturday, those two tasks may be a little more difficult-but the Utes are confident they can erase last week’s loss from their minds and get their briefly derailed season back on track.

“If we play like we did Saturday, it’s a toss of the coin who wins this ballgame,” Whittingham said. “If we play like we’re capable of playing, then I like our chances.”

Kamil Krzaczynski