New Mexico vs. Utah: The Edge

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

Quarterback

New Mexico’s Donovan Porterie and Utah’s Brian Johnson began their careers in similar fashion. Both started as dual-threat quarterbacks who never shied away from tucking the ball and running. But their respective first seasons didn’t exactly turn out perfectly. Utah finished 5-5 with Johnson as its starting quarterback in 2005 and New Mexico finished 3-3 under Porterie. This season, the two QBs haven’t strayed from the pocket too often, and the results have been great. Johnson is third in the MWC in pass efficiency and Porterie is fifth. Both have led their respective teams to 7-3 starts.

Edge: Even

Running back

There are three running backs in the Mountain West Conference who average more than 100 yards per game, and two of them will be on display tomorrow. Utah’s Darrell Mack missed his sixth consecutive 100-yard game against Wyoming by a mere three yards, but made up for that with two rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, New Mexico’s Rodney Ferguson has bulled his way to an average of 101.1 yards per game this season. The first-team All-MWC performer led the conference in yards a season ago.

Edge: Even

Wide receivers

New Mexico’s Marcus Smith and Travis Brown are currently one and two, respectively, in the conference in receptions per game and receiving yards per game. Lobo offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin loves getting the ball out to the two seniors quick and letting them do the dirty work. Meanwhile, Utah’s wide receiving corps continues to improve. Freshman Jereme Brooks took two handoffs for two touchdowns, and senior Derrek Richards caught six passes for 86 yards.

Edge: New Mexico

Offensive line

Although it started out rather slowly, the Utah offensive line seems to have found a cohesive unit late in the season. Center Kyle Gunther anchors a group that has led the way to 300 rushing yards per game during the past two contests and has kept quarterback Brian Johnson relatively protected (one sack in the last two games). Conversely, the Lobos’ front five have paved the way for just 133.7 rushing yards per game, but have allowed merely 1.4 sacks per game this season.

Edge: Utah

Defensive line

Utah senior defensive tackle Gabe Long quietly went about his work over the first nine weeks of the season, never getting much recognition for being the key to Utah’s rush defense. But after last week, Long will have a hard time hiding from the attention. The senior recorded three sacks and one forced fumble in the win against Wyoming. For the Lobos, Tyler Donaldson and Michael Tuohy are the closest thing to a pass rush. The two defensive ends come into the game with 3.5 sacks apiece.

Edge: Utah

Linebackers

Speed and athleticism are two words Kyle Whittingham used to describe New Mexico’s defense. That couldn’t prove more true than when examining the Lobos’ linebacking corps, which sacrificed size (none of the three starters weigh more than 225 lbs.) for athleticism. Unfortunately, that hasn’t led to overwhelming play from the group. The two leading tackles on the team play in the secondary. For the Utes, Malakai Mokofisi and Joe Jiannoni continue their solid play, and sophomore Stevenson Sylvester is quickly becoming one of the defense’s better playmakers.

Edge:Utah

Defensive backs

New Mexico’s unique 3-3-5 defensive scheme allows for plenty of playmakers to be on the field at the same time, and the Lobos use them to perfection. Ian Clark leads the team in tackles from his “Lobo” position and DeAndre Wright is one of the best cornerbacks in the league (two interceptions, eight pass break-ups). Meanwhile, Steve Tate tacked another interception up last week and anchors one of the best defensive backfields in the nation. The Utes currently rank eighth in the country in pass defense, allowing an average of 179 yards per game through the air.

Edge: Utah

Special teams

“Sweet” Louie Sakoda has been nearly automatic on field-goal attempts this season (18-for-20) and is tops in the Mountain West Conference in punting, averaging 44.8 yards per punt. New Mexico punter Jordan Scott ranks last in the conference, averaging 40.6 yards per punt. Utah’s Derrek Richards leads the MWC in yards per punt return (15.2) while New Mexico’s Frankie Solomon ranks last with 3.6 yards per return. Do you see where this is going?

Edge: Utah

Coaching

New Mexico head coach Rocky Long breeds tough teams and has led this year’s edition of the Lobos to a 7-3 start — much higher than was expected. Much of that is because of the talent on offense, but Long has still proven himself as a consistent coach over the years. Meanwhile, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has taken a team that is riddled with injuries and turned it into a contender. Whittingham has led the Utes on a six-game win streak — the longest of his tenure.

Edge: Utah