Utes runnin’ to beat Aggies

The U football team hasn’t lost to its in-state rival to the north since 1997, and the 2006 crew has no intention of bucking that trend. The Utes go for their second-in-a-row win Saturday night as they make the 85-mile trek to Logan to take on the Utah State Aggies.

The Utes are coming off their first victory of the season, a 45-7 thumping of Division I-AA foe Northern Arizona. Brett Ratliff and the U offense overcame their sub-par performance of the prior week against UCLA, while the defense, led by Kelly Talavou’s two sacks, put pressure on NAU quarterback Jason Murrietta as Utah overcame an early deficit to pick up the win.

The differences between the Utes’ performance in week one vs. that of week two were jarring. The week before was one of the team’s most lopsided losses in years. And in one week’s time, the weaknesses were improved upon, the fans were appeased-temporarily at least-and things seemed to be getting back to normal.

“It was a big difference, especially in the emotional level for our football team and the passion that they showed, as well as the execution,” U head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It was better all the way around. Obviously, it was a different football team that we played.”

Now comes the annual meeting with USU, and the team is looking for an even stronger performance. After all, defeating a smaller school with a lesser talent level is no great feat, but the Utes took a lot of good out of the victory nonetheless.

“We’re the first guys to understand that the talent level NAU is not the same as UCLA, but what we did was better,” Whittingham said. “We took care of what we needed to take care of.”

Through two games, the team’s biggest strengths have come in the trenches-no surprise for a head coach and coaching staff who have made the offensive and defensive lines their top recruiting priority.

On the offensive side of the ball, the front five has not allowed a sack yet this season and has paved the way for the running game-not only Mike Liti and Darryl Poston, but versatile wideout Brent Casteel as well-to average 5.3 yards per carry.

Defensively, despite the line’s inability to rush the passer against UCLA, the run defense has been stout as usual, limiting opposing runners to just 181 combined rushing yards in two games, with an average of 2.7 yards per rush.

But the strong play of one of the lines may be par for the course come Saturday. Many will still be looking for the offense to continue to improve its execution and put a load of points on the scoreboard. Even against the Lumberjacks last week, it took a whole quarter before Ratliff and Co. showed the confidence and chemistry expected of them.

Still, when all was said and done, the Utes had piled up 512 total yards and six touchdowns without committing a single turnover.

“We improved from week one to week two, execution-wise. We did our thing better, as far as timing, execution and so forth. We’ve got to get better from week to week,” Whittingham said. “That’s something that’s got to happen.

“Utah State?they’ve got to be excited about getting back home and having a home game. It is their home opener and is a situation like we were last week. It’s good to get home after a loss-in their case a couple losses-and regroup and try to re-establish things.”

Ratliff said that, between the team’s first two games, the players didn’t really change their approach-it was just a matter of coming out focused and executing the way they had all spring and fall.

“It was just playing better overall,” Ratliff said. “We watched a lot of film for NAU, and we just played better. We played as a team and had all 11 guys playing.”

Kickoff for Saturday’s showdown at Romney Stadium is set for 6 p.m.