Date & Time: Sept. 2nd, 2006, 5 p.m. MST
TV: FSN (National)
Radio: AM 700 The Zone
Location: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California
The University of Utah will kick off their 2006 season with a visit to the Rose Bowl this Saturday. Last year UCLA went 10-2, beating Northwestern in the Sun Bowl and finishing tied with the most wins in school history. This season, the Bruins have gone under the knife for a total makeover and, like Utah in 2005, may not resemble their former team. Utah on the other hand returns much of their offense and defense from last year's 7-5 team that ended the year with a stunningly impressive win over Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl.
The Bruins enter Saturday's game with a lot of unknowns on offense. Jim Svoboda, former quarterbacks coach for UCLA, replaced Tom Cable as the Bruins offensive coordinator and he will be working with Ben Olson, a BYU transfer that was regarded as the best QB out of high school in 2001, who is taking over for the Bruins offense after Drew Olson graduated. Ben Olson will have a plentiful receiving core this season, though it has taken a hit with the injury of returning leader Joe Cowan, who is expected to not play for the Utah game.
Defensively, UCLA will look to improve from last season's mediocre defense. The Bruins defense struggled against many average offenses last season and they can't regress again this year against a powerful Utah offense, even at home. UCLA will look to patch up a possible weak secondary and put pressure on Utah quarterback Brett Ratliff, who will only be making his 3rd start at the D1-A level in his career. The Bruins have a powerful defensive line that should be ready to roll with the announcement that Kevin Brown will not miss the Utah game.
Utah's offense this season returns 7 starters and will prove to be a test for the Bruins defense. Ratliff, who is undefeated as a starter, looked nearly flawless in both of his performances last season. And like UCLA, Utah has ample talent at the wide receiver position, with Brian Hernandez setting the course for this talented receiving core.
Utah's biggest question on offense -- outside of whether Ratliff can continue the success he had at the end of 2005 -- centers around Utah's running game. The Utes lost 1,000-yard rusher Quinton Ganther and will need to find a serviceable back to replace him if they're going to have any success this season. Coach Whittingham has stated that the Utes will interchange their running backs much like the team did in 2004 with Marty Johnson and Quinton Ganther. And it isn't like the Utes don't have talent here, it's just trying to keep that talent healthy that seems to be the biggest issue for Utah. Senior Daryl Poston looks to be the starter for the Utes this season, however Poston has a history of getting injured, so it's unclear if he can go an entire season staying healthy. Darrell Mack has decent size and could play a role, especially if Poston goes down and Mike Liti has the most experience, starting 3 games last season, and is arguably the best blocker of the 3. Poston and Liti seem to be Utah's choice to handle the running back duties this season, though since this position is Utah's biggest unknown, it really isn't a slam dunk that either will be playing significant minutes at the end of the season.
The Utes other big unknown on offense is their offensive line play. Last year it wasn't good and cost the Utes two or three games. If Utah is going to have success this season, the offensive line will need to step up and play extremely well. And that should be expected, as the O-line made great strides toward the end of the season and did a decent job at protecting Ratliff against BYU and Georgia Tech. They will need performances like that against UCLA because the Bruins have a solid defensive line.
On the defensive side Utah returns 9 starters and should once again be strong here. Utah's biggest advantage on the defensive end is their secondary, which might be one of the best in the country. Anchored around senior CB Eric Weddle, the Utes secondary might cause Ben Olson and the Bruins solid receivers a massive headache, especially if Utah's defensive line can step up. Last year's best player on the line, Steve Fifita, is gone, however the Utes do return 3 starters. They will need to improve greatly, since UCLA might just stick to the running game since this will be Ben Olson's real first test in 5 years. If Utah does a commendable job stopping the run game and flustering Olson, Utah should have no problem winning the game.
Utah wins if... Their offense shreds apart the Bruins suspect defense, their offensive line plays decently enough and their running game doesn't completely falter. The Utes have the offensive weapons to work their way down the field on nearly every possession. On defense, if the defensive line can attack Olson, rattling him early, the Bruins might have a difficult time finding any production offensively.
UCLA wins if... Utah's offense struggles against UCLA's strong defensive line and the Utes defense has a difficult time stopping the Bruins running game.
Keys for the Utes:
- Exploit the Bruins secondary.
- Offensive line must step up.
- A decent running performance.
- Defensive line needs to contain the Bruins running game, while also rattling Ben Olson.