The Edge

The Edge

QuarterbackUtah senior Brett Ratliff played his best football of the season down the stretch, improving in each game from New Mexico on. On the whole, he finished the season with 22 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, but his erraticism through the first half of the season likely prevented the Utes from potentially competing for a conference title. Tulsa junior Paul Smith was a second-team all-conference selection who, like Ratliff, proved to be both an effective passer and runner when he was on his game. Both Ratliff and Smith led offenses that were among the highest-scoring in their respective conferences.Edge: Even

Running BacksOne can’t discount Eric Weddle’s contributions to the Utes’ rushing attack, but the fact of the matter is, the team never really had a major threat in the backfield this season. When the Utes won, they typically won through the air. Tulsa did more of its winning on the ground. Junior tailback Courtney Tennial was second in the conference with 14 rushing touchdowns and amassed 792 yards on just 165 carries. Edge: Tulsa

ReceiversSecond-team all-Conference USA selection Idris Moss is the Golden Hurricane’s top receiving threat, but he managed to haul in just one touchdown catch all season, oddly enough. He and Ryan Bugg made for a solid tandem for Paul Smith, but the Utes’ receiving corps provides Ratliff with a variety of weapons, many of which could be the go-to guy on any given day. Brent Casteel has been the team’s biggest offensive playmaker all year (scoring a team-high nine touchdowns) and Derrek Richards has been a consistent threat. Along with speedy wideouts Marquis Wilson and Brian Hernandez, as well as Bradon Godfrey and Freddie Brown, the Ute receiving corps offers plenty of options.Edge: Utah

Offensive LineBoth of these lines allowed just 14 sacks this year and were among the most pivotal aspects to their respective seasons, though to be fair, Tulsa’s offensive line certainly paved the way for a more potent running game than did Utah’s. Oddly enough, the Ute line had just one all-conference selection (left tackle Tavo Tupola) despite being one of the strongest units in the league. Tulsa senior Jeff Perrett was a first-team all-Conference USA selection, while teammates Aaron Dannenhauer and Jon Hameister-Ries made it to the second team.Edge: Even

Defensive LineDespite defensive end Robert Latu’s stellar senior campaign, in which he registered 34 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and five quarterback pressures, the Golden Hurricane’s defensive line is susceptible to the run. Opposing rushers averaged 4.2 yards per carry this season, while Utah’s D-line (led by all-conference tackle Kelly Talavou) limited runners to just 3.1 yards per rush.Edge: Utah

LinebackersUtah’s Joe Jiannoni overcame an early-season foot injury to emerge as one of the toughest defenders in the Mountain West, earning all-MWC honors in his senior season. On the other side, veteran Tulsa ‘backer Nick Bunting was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year after yet another dominant campaign. Nelson Coleman and Chris Chamberlain were also honored on the second- and third-teams, respectively, giving the Utah offense a lot to worry about come Dec. 23.Edge: Even

SecondaryMore than likely, Eric Weddle will be the best player on the field come Dec. 23, and his contributions aren’t limited just to his stellar man-to-man pass coverage, which is known as his forte. He is formidable against the run, as well, and has proven to be one of the most versatile players in the nation. The U secondary as a whole has had its moments, but has shown vulnerability at times that has cost the Utes some big games (namely against UCLA and New Mexico). Tulsa’s defensive backfield, on the other hand, was statistically the most effective in Conference USA this season, holding opposing passers to just 152 yards per contest as Bobby Blackshire and Nick Graham earned all-conference honors.Edge: Tulsa

Special TeamsSpecial teams are one area that has been a consistent strength for the Utes since the beginning of the season. Sophomore Louie Sakoda has been an effective double threat as the team’s kicker and punter, Brice McCain has been a strong addition to the kickoff team, and both the U’s kick and punt coverage teams have been consistently strong. Tulsa’s strongest asset on special teams is kicker Jarod Tracy, who missed just one field goal all year.Edge: Utah

CoachingTulsa’s Steve Kragthorpe has seen his share of successes during his four seasons at the helm, leading the team to a conference title last season and another winning season this year. And in his first year at the school (before Tulsa’s switch to Conference USA), he won the WAC’s Coach of the Year award. Meanwhile, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham has come under criticism during his first two seasons, but there’s something to be said about the fact that his teams have managed to overcome adversity and inconsistency both this year and last. And in both seasons, the Utes emerged as one of the strongest teams in the MWC.Edge: Even

Chris Bellamy