Date & Time: October 10th, 2009, 4:00 MST
TV: the mtn.
Radio: Kall 700
Location: Hughes Stadium, Fort Collins, Colorado
All-time series: Utah leads 53-22-2
Last meeting: 2008, Utah 49, Colorado State 16
It wasn't but a couple of weeks ago Colorado State was looking like the surprise team of the 2009 season. They had opened the year with an impressive victory over rival Colorado and then two weeks later beat what many thought could be a BCS contending Nevada squad. Even after last week's loss to BYU, the Rams still seemed formidable. Not so much now after losing a close one to Idaho. And really, it wasn't the fact they lost to the Vandals, but how they lost to them.
The Rams defense struggled. Idaho pretty much had their way with short passes and worked them pretty well. This was most apparent during the fourth quarter when Colorado State needed a stop. They never got it and ultimately, now sit at 3-2 on the season because of it.
Which sets up Saturday's game between the two. It's an important one for both, because CSU can't afford a three-game losing streak. Not if they're going to contend for a bowl berth. The Utes, on the other hand, should win. This isn't 2005 - where Utah was struggling to find itself in Kyle Whittingham's first season. They have rebuilt rather well over the course of the last four games and look the part of a conference contender. But these type of games, on the road, can always wreak havoc on a team that is still fairly inexperienced. That is probably my biggest concern heading into the contest because even though the Utes are more talented and should win this on paper, it's still a conference road game and you generally can't take those for granted.
On the other hand, Utah will have had two weeks to game plan for the Rams and that seems to be one of Whittingham's biggest strengths. The Utes are undefeated in games after a bye-week and you can throw in his 4-0 bowl record for good measure. They will be ready. They also know these are the games you can't lose if you're going to contend for a conference championship. Four years ago, they lost to Colorado State in Fort Collins and it all but did in any hope of winning the Mountain West that year.
So what should the Utes look for Saturday? Well for starters, this is a very different Colorado State offense. Like Utah, they've had to replace their quarterback and running back (now that Utah lost Matt Asiata).
That offense really didn't struggle against Idaho, but the Vandals defense isn't really all that great, either. On the season, CSU ranks fifth in the Mountain West in total offensive yards per game - the Utes are first. Their passing offense is third in the conference at an average of 262-yards per game. So expect them to really test Utah's secondary.
Leading that offense is quarterback Grant Stucker. On the season, he averages 141-yards per game and has thrown for 10 touchdowns, though he also has seven interceptions on the season. His best game actually came against the suspect Cougar defense. Though they lost, he was 30 of 50 for 372-yards and two touchdown throws. I don't expect him to put up near the same numbers against Utah.
But as I mentioned, it's not the offense that will decide the game. The Utes' defense is pretty stout, as they rank 3rd in the conference in yards per game allowed. Victory will come down to whether Utah can do what it seems every team this season has been able to do - score on the Rams. Colorado State ranks sixth in yards allowed, and points given up (27). Breaking that down just a bit more, CSU has struggled in their pass defense, which ranks near the bottom in the conference. For a still progressing quarterback like Terrance Cain, that's huge. It means he should be able to pick apart their defense without much problem.
The fact this will be the first game Utah will play without Asiata leads me to believe the offense will rely more on Cain like it did against Louisville. Though if Eddie Wide can put up a similar performance to what he had in that game, the transition should be fairly seamless.
While the Rams do rank second in the conference in run defense, I've got to think that has more to do with the fact teams opt to pass on them than their defensive line actually creating a wall at the line of scrimmage. But without having really watched many of their games, I can't say for certain.
The bottom line with this game is that I see the Utes pretty much imposing their will on the offensive side. The game might not be the blowout we saw last year, but I don't expect it to come down to the final play like it did four years ago.
Utah wins if...They don't turn the ball over too many times and exploit the deficiencies in CSU's pass defense. The constant theme throughout this preview is how more talented the Utes are than the Rams. I believe this. Now that doesn't mean they can't lose, but if Utah comes to play - there won't be an excuse for losing.
CSU wins if...They force Utah into mistakes early, set the tempo and find a ground game. The Utes pass defense is too good to really be picked apart like the Rams did to BYU two weeks ago (and to a lesser extent, Idaho last week). If they're going to win this game, I've got to think it's through Utah turnovers and a ground game.
What will happen...Utah's offense continues to improve and Cain again has a pretty decent game. I expect them to move the ball with ease on Colorado State and if they can't, there might be some problems that will undo the Utes' season.
The Rams are not a bad team, but they're not good, either. If Utah is going to establish itself as a good team, these are the games they will have to win and thankfully, I think the team realizes this. They know it's not going to be a cake walk, but CSU should not test them like the other top teams in the conference will. Utes win 42-21.
What are your predictions?