Date & Time: 1:30 November 25th, 2006
Radio: AM 700 The Zone
Location: Rice-Eccles Stadium
All-time series: Utah leads 49-28-4
Last meeting: 2005 (Utah 41, TDS 34)
This is what seasons are made of. Nothing gets the blood boiling more than a match against Utah's most hated rival. Throw out the records and the past, because chances are they won't have much bearing when these two teams meet this Saturday.
This will mark the 82nd meeting between Utah and TDS, one of the oldest rivalries in college football history. It's also one of the moste heated and hated, as the Utes and TDS have battled it out in epic fashion over the years. I don't expect this Saturday to be much different, though I'm sure TDS fans would beg to differ.
What's at stake this year? At first glance not much, as TDS has already clinched an outright conference championship and the Utes are already guaranteed a bowl victory. However beyond the standings and bowl possibilities, this game means much more to both teams than just another W in the win column. For Utah's seniors it means a chance to never know the feeling of losing to TDS. For TDS, it's a chance to claim their first victory in this rivalry since doing so in 2001.
Will TDS snap Utah's 4 game winning streak in the series, or will the Utes push that streak to 5 games? On paper, one would pick the former, as TDS looks to be the more talented team. However this is a series where often the impossible becomes possible. All you need to do is look to last year's overtime battle for proof of this. Utah, a double digit dog heading into the game, had lost their starting quarterback and their best wide receiver the week before. On top of that, TDS was rolling and the game was being played down in Provo. Utah stood no chance of pulling a victory, or so Ute fans were told. But that wasn't how it played out that abnormally warm November afternoon. Utah took a three touchdown lead into the break and held on in OT to beat TDS on their home field to become bowl eligible.
This season there is no question that TDS is better, but so is Utah. In fact the Utes have won three straight and are coming off an impressive last second victory at Air Force. That was a gut check game and the Utes passed with flying colors. Now they need a performance far greater than what they gave last week to defeat TDS, but asking that is definitely not improbable.
Utah has only lost one home game this season, a blowout to Boise State in September. That loss was ugly, but it was ugly because the Broncos defense bewildered Brett Ratliff and forced him into too many turnovers. If that happens this week, Utah will be cooked by the time the second quarter rolls around. However if Ratliff plays composed and the Utes get a score early, it could be a whole different style of play coming from Utah.
The question of Utah's success will come down to their offensive production. Last Saturday the Utes offense did just enough to come out on top, but they will definitely need to step it up this week if they have any hope of pulling out the win. Basically, Ratliff can't have any turnovers and the Utah passing game is going to need to penetrate TDS' secondary. What's more is that Utah's running game needs to be there, or Utah's offense will most likely falter because it will be too predictable. Against Air Force the Utes decided to run Weddle and it worked, because of that, they'll probably do it against TDS. If Weddle can have the same offensive production as he did against the Falcons, and Ratliff has zero turnovers and completes more than 50% of his passes, Utah will be in good shape.
On the defensive end, they need to play as well as they did against Air Force last week. TDS has an explosive offense that's shredded Mountain West teams this season, however they're not great. Against Colorado State, TDS was held to only 24 points. If Utah can hold TDS to 24 points and get solid offensive production, winning a close game could be distinctly possible. Utah will need to pressure John Beck and force him into throwing an interception or two. I'll be the first to admit that Beck, a senior, has played great this season. His ability, the best of his career, is a big reason why TDS is undefeated in conference play. Yet I still question whether he has what it takes to stand up under pressure.
If the Utes hang close, or even take the lead, can TDS overcome that and win? In both their losses, they've choked under pressure and haven't really been tested since. That could change this Saturday and if it does, can Beck exorcise his demons of choking when confronted with adversity?
Outside of Beck, TDS has a pretty good running game, anchored around Curtis Brown, also a senior. The Utes' defense has not given up a 100 yard rusher all season, but if both Brown and Fui Vakapuna go off, that could change. The Utes will need to shut down the run and force Beck into the air, cause him to make a few mistakes and hope that Ratliff and company can capitalize on them. It definitely won't be easy, but something I think Utah is capable of accomplishing.
If the Utes are going to win, they can't get down early. Utah is 6-0 in games where they score first and only 1-4 when they don't and that one win was against D1-AA Northern Arizona.
TDS has a very good offense and Utah has a pretty solid defense. That defense will need to step up, but I think Utah's success rests in whether Ratliff has what it takes to counter the inevitable TDS scoring.
I'm not about to make a prediction just yet. With this game being played in Salt Lake, I think the Utes struggle only if they shoot themselves in the foot. I believe they can contend with TDS, but that doesn't mean they'll win. I expect a tough game with the game still in question heading into the fourth quarter.