2014 Utes bear striking resemblance to 2008 team


— The Daily Utah Chronicle File — Dane Goodwin

For some, the Utes’ last-minute victory against previously-ranked USC on Saturday night stirred an eerie feeling of déjà vu to past years of football greatness.
It was 2008 when the Utes welcomed 11th-ranked TCU to Rice-Eccles Stadium for the first edition of the annual blackout game. Both that game and the USC game on Saturday saw the Utes steal a victory in the final minute of regulation to defeat a conference team that was one spot behind them in the national football rankings.
But that’s not the only similarity between this year’s team and the 2008 squad that busted the BCS bubble for the second time in school history.
The 2008 team featured a pass-happy offensive attack led by former Utah (and current Mississippi State) quarterback coach Brian Johnson, a stingy defense led by current NFL players Paul Kruger and Sean Smith, and clutch special teams play spearheaded by Utah’s all-time leading scorer in placekicker/punter Louie Sakoda.
The 2014 Utes differ slightly on the offensive end. They still run an up-tempo spread offense, but have had more struggles in the passing game than in 2008. The defense is similar, with players such as Nate Orchard and Brian Blechen filling in the spots vacated by Kruger and Smith. As hard as it is to believe, the special teams may be better than it was in 2008, the only difference being that the duties are split between Andy Phillips and Tom Hackett, as opposed to a one-man show like Sakoda was.
Since taking the helm of Utah football back in 2005, head coach Kyle Whittingham has seen team after team enter and exit his program and has become quite adept at noticing the differences and similarities between his current and former teams. He agrees that this year’s team shares a lot of characteristics with that undefeated 2008 team.
“We had King Louie, so we had that special teams weapon … there’s similarities on the special teams with the amount of production we’re getting,” Whittingham said. “Defensively we played good defense that year, the defenses are very comparable. We had a very good tailback both years and a strong running game. I think you could draw a lot of parallels between the two teams, the difference is the level of competition this year seems to be pretty stiff although we did beat a couple ranked teams that year.”
The 2008 Utes defeated three nationally ranked teams that year, 11th-ranked TCU, as previously mentioned, 14th-ranked BYU in that year’s edition of the Holy War and the 4th-ranked Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 of 2009.
This year, the Utes have already defeated two ranked opponents in the previously 8th-ranked UCLA Bruins and the previously 20th-ranked Trojans. The schedule doesn’t get any easier, as they will face 15th-ranked Arizona State this weekend before taking on currently 5th-ranked Oregon and 14th-ranked Arizona in the coming weeks.
The 2008 Utes had five games decided by seven or fewer points that year including victories against Michigan, Air Force, Oregon State, New Mexico and TCU.
This year, after starting the season 3-0 with relatively comfortable victories, the Utes have had to endure four nail-biting finishes beginning with a one-point loss to Washington State, followed by close victories against UCLA, Oregon State and USC.
Although the Utes did suffer that notorious hiccup against Wazzu back in September, they have since learned how to finish off close games like their 2008 counterparts with timely defensive stands and efficient two-minute style offensive drives ­— things Utah had struggled to do since joining the Pac-12.
“I thought it was important for us to be on both sides of the spectrum,” said Utah tight end Westlee Tonga. “Last year, we came down to a lot of close games and came out on the other side. Now, having been through those games, having them under our belt, with the senior leadership, a lot of things are kind of aligning for us to allow us to get over that hump that we weren’t able to last year.”
Tonga and quarterback Travis Wilson hooked up six times for 71 yards Saturday night against the Trojans. They have both had to endure the pain and suffering inflicted by previous years’ close losses and both came into this season determined to make the offense more effective and get Utah back to a bowl game. Seven games later, they are bowl eligible and Wilson is the first to point out the entire team effort that has led to this year’s success.
“I think it’s the determination and the passion we have as a team,” Wilson said. “I think it’s been all three phases, offense, defense and special teams doing their jobs and everyone doing their part. It’s all about executing our game plan and just making sure we’re fighting until the very end.”
This year, as opposed to 2008, the Utes have hung their hat on the defensive side and used offense and special teams to supplement the defensive success. While that has been the case repeatedly in recent years, the defense has also come up short in some close Pac-12 games.
This year, safety Brian Blechen says that improved play from the secondary has improved the effectiveness of the ever-dangerous Utah defensive front, as well as the defense as a whole.
“It’s been about all 11 guys,” Blechen said. “The secondary has improved, we try to buy an extra second to keep the quarterback in the pocket for the D-line. The box, they’ve done a great job of getting to the quarterback a lot. Throughout the game, that starts to help us, it’s kind of a push and pull. We help the D-line, they help us and hopefully we force turnovers.”
The Utah defense will need that effective push and pull when they head to Tempe, Ariz. Saturday to take on the Sun Devils for control of the Pac-12 South. Kickoff for is set for 9 p.m. MT.
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