Utes, TCU face must-win situations tonight

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

TCU and Utah are two examples of how wild and unexpected this season of college football has been.

Before the season, ESPN analysts and Mountain West Conference media both raved about the Horned Frogs, saying that they were going to win the conference and possibly bust into a BCS bowl. Meanwhile, the Utes were picked to finish third in league play and everyone had penciled them in for losses against non-conference foes UCLA and Louisville.

Needless to say, that is not the way it has gone. Now, with conference title dreams on the line, both teams are facing must-win situations tonight in Fort Worth, Texas.

“History will tell you that three losses, or even two losses I should say, make it really difficult for teams to get a share of the conference title,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “If we lost this week, it would be next to impossible to get a piece.”

The Utes and Horned Frogs come into the match-up tonight at Amon G. Carter Stadium with identical records (4-3, 1-2) and have both been dealt with a number of hardships and injuries along the way. The difference is that Utah has handled those hardships slightly better and carries a three-game winning streak.

TCU did get back into the win column last week though, making a 38-36 comeback win over a Stanford team that had just beaten USC.

“Yeah, there’s some similarities with these two teams,” Whittingham said. “There’s no good reason why we started slow, but yeah, you’re looking at two teams that seem to be gaining some momentum and finding some consistency.”

Streaks and positive momentum have a tendency to end when Utah plays in Texas. The last time the Utes played TCU in Fort Worth, their 18-game winning streak was snapped in overtime, 23-20.

Utah quarterback Brian Johnson led the Utes in the loss and remembers it vividly, saying it will be “forever burned into my memory.”

“The fact that we had an 18-game winning streak going in there last time, and it was in front of all my family and on national television, that hurt,” Johnson said. “We didn’t play particularly well on offense last time, so I’m excited to go back there.”

Thanks to the emergence of running back Darrell Mack, Johnson doesn’t have to shoulder as much of the offensive output as he did last time. Since becoming the starter, Mack has averaged 124.4 rushing yards per contest and is third in the conference in touchdowns (eight).

To this point, Mack has been just the pounding threat the Utes need, with the majority of his yards coming after contact. The junior will need to be that same punishing runner this week if the Utes want to keep their conference hopes alive.

“Every week the coaches tell us violence in the run game, violence in the run game, and (Mack) just goes out and gets it done,” said Utah offensive tackle Dustin Hensel. “He’s a smaller guy, but when he hits people, they tend to move or get out of the way.”

Mack faces a Horned Frogs’ defensive front that has experienced somewhat of a facelift this season, with All-American candidate Tommy Blake taking a leave of absence from his defensive end position for undisclosed reasons and defensive tackle James Vess suspended for violating university policy. The result is an uncharacteristically porous run defense that has allowed an average of 139.9 rushing yards per game.

It hasn’t been all bad up front for the Horned Frogs though. Senior defensive end Chase Ortiz has been wreaking havoc on opposing offenses this season and leads the Mountain West Conference with five sacks.

Offensively, the Horned Frogs had been using a two-quarterback attack the majority of this season, but will likely stray from that this week. That is due in large part to freshman Andy Dalton, who threw for 344 yards and two touchdowns and led his team to victory a week ago.

The focus for the Utes, however, is on stopping running back Aaron Brown. The junior hasn’t been overly impressive this season, rushing for 76.8 points per game, but ran for 163 yards against the Utes in Fort Worth two years ago.

“Their running game is our number one priority right now,” said defensive tackle Greg Newman. “They have a tailback (Brown) that is really fast and they use him well. We’ve got to stop that back.”

Brown and Dalton lead a Horned Frog team that has been extremely effective in the fourth quarter as of late. Against Wyoming two weeks ago, TCU found itself down 21-6 heading into the final frame and nearly pulled off a comeback victory before losing 24-21.

Last week against Stanford, the Horned Frogs trailed by 14 late in the game before making a comeback and scoring the game-winning touchdown with 4:13 left in the game.

“It’s very easy to see on film why they were picked to be the No. 1 team in the league,” Whittingham said. “They are very talented and have a lot of weapons and they play tough to the end. They showed what they were capable of coming back against Stanford and we definitely have our hands full.”

[email protected]