Utes will need tough defense for Jacquizz

By Marco Villano, Staff Writer

The Utah defense has shut down its opponents’ running games all season, but Thursday might be a different story as it faces its toughest test to date.

Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers has come out of nowhere to become one of the country’s elite running backs in college football. The 5-foot-6-inch, 180-pound running back is ranked No. 14 in the nation in rushing yards with an average of 112 yards per game. What makes this tiny, true freshman such a struggle to defend?

When people think of good running backs, size and speed are a huge factor. On paper, Rodgers doesn’t really have either of those. Although he’s short, he isn’t bulging out of his pads like other vertically-challenged running backs. For Rodgers, what’s on paper doesn’t hold entirely true come game time.

“Their main running back (Jacquizz Rodgers) is extremely productive, he’s strong and quick,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’ve got to focus on slowing him down.”

Scout.com evaluated Rodgers and his strengths. The Web site said he runs with amazing power and has great leg drive. He gains a lot of yards just from pure effort. Defenses wouldn’t expect him to be a powerful runner because of his size, but his legs never stop moving.

“He is like all great backs8212;when nothing is there, he will find a way to make yards,” Whittingham said.

Last week against USC, even after hitting the hole and exposing himself to one of the best linebacker and secondary corps in the country, Rodgers made tacklers miss with either his agility, or his flat-out ability to break tackles.

Now it’s time for him to go up against one of the best rushing defenses in the country, the No. 5 ranked Utes.

If the Utes plan on stopping Rodgers, they will have to pick him out of the crowd when he’s running through the middle. His size allows him to hide behind Oregon State’s immense offensive line, which has become one of the best in college football this season, and bounce around like a pinball.

The Utes defense understands that, although he might be hard to find, he has to run somewhere. If the defense sticks to its assignments it can better contain Rodgers.

“We just gotta be gap sound,” said strong safety Joe Dale. “He has to hit some hole and as long as we fill out our gaps, then no matter where he goes we’ll be there.”

The Utes’ defense has held its opponents to 60 rushing yards per game. That number would be much smaller if it weren’t for UNLV, who rushed for 129 yards in the second game of the season.

Utah’s size might be a huge factor in this game due to the fact that Oregon State’s line is massive. Rodgers has the ability to cut between the guards and tackles because of his great first step.

“We’ve gotta be creative and do some things to try to keep those offensive linemen a little bit off balance,” said defensive coordinator Gary Andersen. “If we just sit in there and let the linemen tee off on us, then that’s going to give us some real problems.”

The defense for the U has already shut down one of the best rushing offenses in the country this season in Air Force. The Falcons were ranked sixth in the country in rushing up to that point, but could only squeak out 53 yards against the U.

“We’ve obviously faced a very difficult challenge in the team as far as running goes with Air Force,” Anderson said. “But (Oregon State) is a completely different animal than that.”

[email protected]