Operation shutdown

By By Tony Pizza

By Tony Pizza

Northern Arizona has 11 players out for every offensive play, but the Utes knew they needed to give the bulk of their attention to just one of those players to keep the Lumberjacks from repeating the scare they were able to give No. 23 Arizona State the week before.

NAU wideout Alex Watson went off for 206 yards and two touchdowns against the Sun Devils, and the Utes knew a key to winning was to not let the speedy receiver go crazy on them Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“I was excited for this match-up because, hearing what he said on the radio, and this and that about our group, it really got me fired up,” U defensive back Eric Weddle said.

After Watson caught three passes for 19 yards on Northern Arizona’s first possession, the Utes called on their All-American candidate to apply asphyxiating bump and pressure man-coverage to the Lumberjacks’ most potent offensive weapon. For the remainder of the game, Watson barely drew a look from NAU quarterback Jason Murrieta, and Weddle prevented Watson from touching another pass.

“Those three catches were in cover 2, which is meaningless. And when I was manned up with him, he did nothing, so I’m proud of that,” Weddle said. “I’m proud for the guys that came together and really took this opportunity to shut this guy down, because he was their main offense last week and I’m glad that we shut him down. He doesn’t have much to say about us now.”

Many times, it is easy to get a feel for what kind of game a player is having by how many times his name gets called. For Eric Weddle, it was how many times his, or Watson’s, name did not get called. Weddle’s coverage was so effective that, oftentimes, Murrietta quickly checked off Watson and went through his player progression on plays that were designed for Watson. Weddle even contributed to a coverage sack in the third quarter when Murrietta rolled out to the right on a second-and-10 play. Murrietta’s eyes were locked in on Watson as he tried to fake an inside slant before reversing to the sideline. Weddle stayed with Watson stride-for-stride, and Murrieta opted not to chance an interception, instead getting sacked by Kelly Talavou for a loss of 12 yards.

After Northern Arizona’s first possession, Watson was only thrown to one more time in each half. The first attempt came on the Lumberjacks’ touchdown drive in the first quarter. The second pass, which was intended for Watson, resulted in a Shaun Harper interception in the fourth quarter.

Although the interception was a good defensive play for the Utes, the result was not. Shaun Harper broke his wrist and is expected to miss six to eight weeks with the injury. The injury to Harper puts the Utes in a tough position.

“We’re thin at corner anyways. We do have the wild card-you know, No. 32 that can do it all. So every year in the last three years, we’ve had to move him at some point to full-time corner, so maybe this is no different this year.” Whittingham said. “That’s our first answer-more than likely, is to put Eric back there (at cornerback) full time, but that decision won’t be made for a couple days.”

The Utes will hope to get junior free safety Steve Tate back from an ankle injury next week, in case they need to move Weddle over to the corner position.

Lennie Mahler

Utah senior Eric Weddle returns a punt early in the second quarter of Saturday’s home game against Northern Arizona University.