Date & Time: Sept. 9th, 2006, 6 p.m. MST
Radio: AM 700 The Zone
Location:: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah
All-time series: First meeting
A week after their worst loss since the 1996 Copper Bowl, the Utes will look to rebound against a scrappy Northern Arizona program fresh off a close loss to instate "rival" Arizona State. Boy what a week makes, though. Last week I wouldn't even comprehend the possibility of Utah losing to D1-AA Northern Arizona, but now I'm not so sure. Utah's play against UCLA Saturday, coupled with Montana State stunning Colorado at Colorado, Portland State slamming New Mexico at New Mexico and Richmond dominating Duke at Duke does not ease my fears.
I don't know much about Northern Arizona because it's always difficult finding information on a D1-AA program that's of any value. All I do know is that they weren't very good last year and I thought they weren't going to be very good this year, either. However after watching their near-upset of Arizona State this weekend, maybe I underestimated the Lumberjacks just a bit.
Northern Arizona looks to have a solid offense that put a lot of scare into a weak Arizona State defense. At quarterback Jason Murrietta completed 15 of 20 passes against the Sun Devils for an impressive 259 yards. He also threw for two touchdowns and one interception. Murrietta's favorite receiver against Arizona State was Alex Watson, who had 11 catches for 206 yards and two touchdowns, including an 80-yarder early in the game.
The Lumberjacks offense played about as well as one would hope against not only a BCS team, but a ranked BCS team at that. However I was more impressed with the Lumberjacks' defense, which kept Arizona State's explosive offense out of the end zone for a good bulk of the game. The most impressive part came when, after a botched fake punt deep in their own territory, Northern Arizona turned the ball over and had a game changing stand, holding Arizona State on a 4th and goal to get the ball back. The ensuing drive would put Northern Arizona up 7-0.
The Lumberjacks defense might just have what it takes to slow down Utah's receiving core, who had difficulty holding onto anything against the Bruins. The Utes will need a solid offensive effort if they're going to put some breathing room between them and Northern Arizona early.
Against UCLA, the Utes offense looked rather mediocre. Brett Ratliff struggled connecting with any of his receivers and while the running game was solid, it was underutilized by offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. Utah's 10 points were the lowest point total since only scoring 3 against TDS in 2003 (the Utes won 3-0). Utah, who was expected to have one of the best offenses in the nation, couldn't get it done against a UCLA defense that ranked toward the bottom of the country last year. Whether UCLA's defense has improved or Utah's offense has regressed won't be known for at least a couple of weeks. However the Utes offense can't continue to drop easy passes, or they will find themselves in the exact same position Arizona State was in over the weekend.
Defensively, the Utes will need to stop the pass. All game Ben Olson worked Utah's secondary, which is a concern because that was supposed to be the best part of Utah's defense this year. While Jason Murrietta is no Ben Olson, I'm not even sure Ben Olson is as good as he looked Saturday. Utah's defensive line could get no pressure, giving Olson all the time in the world to make passes. If the Utes struggle pressuring Murrietta, NAU's offense might work Utah's secondary.
Utah should win this game, but after a weekend of upsets and the way Utah played against UCLA, now I'm not so sure.
Utah wins if... They get back that offensive explosion we saw at the end of last year. Brett Ratliff looked confused and scared against the Bruins Saturday and that must change this week.
NAU wins if... Utah's offense continues to sputter this week. The key for D1-AA teams to get wins on the road against D1-A teams is pretty basic, score early and hope the other team gets too flustered to control the flow of the game. NAU almost did it against Arizona State and the Sun Devils have a much more impressive offense than Utah. The Lumberjacks will look to take Utah's offense out early and a quick score could mean trouble for a Utah team already demoralized by UCLA the week prior.
What will happen... Utah will struggle early. I don't think this offense is nearly as good as I expected it to be. NAU's defense will throw Ratliff off during the first few drives and Utah will only score minimal points in the first half. However, Utah will take over in the second half and roll to an unimpressive victory. I'm very pessimistic about this Utah team and until I'm proven wrong, I'm feeling my worst case scenario is taking place.
Keys to the game:
- Don't give NAU hope. If the Lumberjacks score early, they've got hope and it could mean problems later on in the game.
- Offense, especially Ratliff, must complete passes and 3rd down conversions. Utah was 0-10 on 3rd downs against UCLA Saturday. Ouch.
- D-line needs to pressure Jason Murrietta.
- Secondary can't give up too many easy passes.