Date & Time: Sept. 23rd, 2006, 6:00 p.m. PST
Radio: AM 700 The Zone
Location: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, California
All-time series: 12-12-1
Last meeting: 2005 (SDSU 28, Utah 17)
Utah opens its conference season on the road against San Diego State, a team that defeated the Utes 28-17 last year in Salt Lake City. There is little doubt that this will be a revenge game for the Utes, who know last year's close call was a fluke and a game they had no business losing. However this is a different Aztecs team and with new head coach Chuck Long on the sidelines, they very well could be much improved as well. Historically, San Diego State has give Utah fits as they are the only Mountain West Conference team the Utes do not have an all-time series lead on (the series is tied at 12-12-1). Utah will be hoping that changes this Saturday night with a victory and a 1-0 conference start.
San Diego State is often touted as one of the most talented programs in the Mountain West, but they have been also been branded as the most underperforming. After another below .500 season last year -- a 5-7 finish -- the Aztecs fired head coach Tom Craft and hired Oklahoma offensive coordinator Chuck Long. So far the hire has yielded no results, as the Aztecs are 0-2 on the season and are coming off a shutout loss to Wisconsin on the road. Long, another Stoops protégé in the college game, has been shouldered with the responsibility of producing seasons that live up to the hyped talent. That may be a problem this year, as the Aztecs lack a few key components on offense for a solid finish this season.
Offensively the Aztecs like to play a balanced game with their running and passing attack. However against Wisconsin, they were held to just 22-yards on the ground. Instead of running the ball effectively like they did against UTEP, where they had 109-yards on the ground, they opted to pass more. SDSU quarterback Darren Mouge completed 15 of 27 passes for 107-yards, but failed to connect with any of his receivers in the end zone. San Diego State did not air it out against Wisconsin, instead they went for the short passes most of the game. Long's offense is conservative and not very explosive.
San Diego State's defense on the other hand looks pretty decent. They held Wisconsin to 14-points at home, which was a solid accomplishment. However they did give up nearly 300-yards on the ground and Wisconsin's offense should not be mistaken for an offensive juggernaut by any means. The Badgers had 373 total yards on the day with only 85-yards coming through the air. Wisconsin also runs the ball more than they pass, ranking second to last in the Big Ten when it comes to passing yards.
Since this is only the third game for the Aztecs, it's impossible to tell if it's their defense that kept Wisconsin's passing totals down, or if it's Wisconsin's offense -- traditionally built around the run -- that was doing it. Right now, stopping the pass does seem to be San Diego State's strongest advantage on defense. If this is the case, Brett Ratliff can't afford to be off on some of his throws, or they will turn into incomplete passes that kill drives, or worse they could turn into interceptions. Utah does benefit from having the strongest receiving core in the conference and Brian Hernandez, who has sat the past two games, is ready to go this Saturday.
If San Diego State struggles against the run, Utah has capable backs that can exploit this deficiency. Mike Liti sat out against Utah State, but is expected to play against San Diego State this weekend and could have a field day with their defensive line. Darrell Mack, the second leading rusher in last week's win over Utah State, has also improved greatly over the past three games and he could be a big factor in Utah's running game as well.
On defense, the Utes might not have much problem pressuring Darren Mouge, as the offensive line for the Aztecs has not played very well this season. Utah's defensive line, which has been overpowering, might dominate the line of scrimmage and that could send the Aztecs reeling, especially if they get down early.
There is no question about it, this will be a battle and a tough road game for the Utes. I expect both defenses to play hard and it very well could be a game that is decided in the last minutes. If the Utes are going to reclaim the Mountain West crown, they can't lose to San Diego State. The Utes have the talent to win, but that does not always mean they will win.
Utah wins if... Their offense continues putting up numbers like they have over the past two weeks. It will be a task because San Diego State is no pushover like Northern Arizona and Utah State, but the Utes offense is clicking right now and brimming with confidence.
San Diego State wins if... They shut down Utah's passing game. The Utes are still a very questionable running team and if Ratliff is taken out of the game, much like he was against the Bruins, it could signal an SDSU victory.
What will happen... Utah wins the line of scrimmage battle and their offense is fairly successful through the air. I don't expect Ratliff to put up numbers like he did against Northern Arizona and Utah State, but I also don't think he will struggle like he did against UCLA. The game will be close, but Utah will win it in the fourth.
Keys to the game:
- Contain the Aztecs passing game. Utah's secondary was burned by UCLA and the Aztecs have the weapons to do it to them again.
- Dominate the line of scrimmage. The Utes defensive line is bigger than the Aztecs' offensive line and they need to use that advantage by pressuring the quarterback.
- Ratliff needs to be on target most of the game. He's only thrown one pick all season long and that came in garbage time essentially against the Bruins. However some of his passes have been a little off and the Utes can't afford that against a better defense.