The Utes will travel to Palo Alto, Calif. on Saturday to take on the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium. Both the Utes and Cardinal are coming off of losses to Oregon and looking to right the ship as the season progresses through the latter stages. Stanford is in need of one more win to secure bowl eligibility, and you can bet they will also have revenge on their minds for last years 27-21 loss to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium. In order to beat the Utes, the Stanford offense will need to figure out a way to stop the Utes prolific pass rush and control the tempo of the game.
Stanford's offense is predicated on running the ball effectively. Everything they do on offense depends on establishing the run by using a rugged, physical offensive line and punishing backs to grind out tough yards. In recent history Stanford has had no problems executing this style of offense with a string of great backs going back to Toby Gerhart and continuing through Tyler Gaffney last year. This year, with new faces on the offensive line and smaller running backs carrying the workload, Stanford's trademark punishing run game has taken a step back from what it once was.
The 2014 version of the Cardinal has relied on a committee of three backs to provide the rushing attack. The trio is led by senior Remound Wright, with 359 yards on 80 attempts and two touchdowns. Junior Barry Sanders (son of the great Barry Sanders) is second with 292 yards on 46 attempts, and senior Kelsey Young has 240 yards on 42 attempts. Neither Sanders nor Young have a touchdown this season.
How could this be? The great Stanford rushing attack has only two touchdowns on the ground this year? Not quite. Quarterback Kevin Hogan can be pretty nifty at times with his feet and has rushed for four touchdowns, and Stanford also makes use of senior fullback Patrick Skov in goal line situations. Skov only has 17 yards for 11 carries on the season but four touchdowns to show for it. The Utes won't have to worry about Skov, however, as he will not play on Saturday because of an undisclosed injury.
Despite Skov's and Hogan's contributions in the run game, the Cardinal is not where it has been offensively in the last several years. Stanford currently ranks 10th in the conference in total rushing yards ahead of only Oregon State and Washington State. This is an alarming fact for the Stanford offense because Oregon State generally relies on the pass and Washington State deliberately does not run the ball at all. For an offense that is based on establishing the run to rank only ahead of those two teams is of great concern for head coach David Shaw.
In the past couple weeks with the run game struggling, the Cardinal have tried something new, mixing in a version of hurry-up offense. Kevin Hogan has looked uncomfortable and at times awful, with no run game to support him, and the Stanford coaches decided to change things up for the past two games against Oregon and Oregon State. The results have been mixed. Hogan has completed 66.6% of his passes in the past two games against the Oregon schools compared to 62.5 % in his previous seven games, which included cupcakes UC Davis and Army. He's also averaging 257 yards per game passing compared to 219 in his previous seven games. While Hogan's completion percentage and yards have increased, his touchdown to interception ratio has remained poor, throwing only two touchdowns to three interceptions in the last two games. It appears the change of pace in offensive philosophy might have given Hogan a bit of a shot in the arm; however, it's clear Hogan is not the type of quarterback that can put the team on his back and lead them to victory with his arm. His wind up is slow, and he tends to lock in on his receivers.
Speaking of receivers, Stanford has a great one in Ty Montgomery. Utes fans may remember him taking a kickoff 104 yards back for a touchdown in last year's game. Montgomery (listed at 6-2 and 220 pounds) is lightening fast and hard to bring down. When he has the ball in his hands, he moves like a running back and can bowl defenders over, but can also out run defensive backs on post and go routes. Lining up opposite Montgomery is big bodied Devon Cajuste. Cajuste is built more like a tight end at 6-4, 229 and is a terrific possession receiver. He can out jump almost anyone on the field and has strong hands to bring the ball down. Both can be nightmares for defensive coordinators to prepare for.
This season, however, neither has really been able to get anything going consistently. The main problem being, Hogan can't seem to get the ball to them. Cajuste has not had more than five receptions in a game this year. His best coming in the loss to Oregon two weeks ago with five catches for 116 yards. Prior to the Oregon game, Cajuste did not have more than 68 receiving yards in a game. Even more concerning for the Cardinal, Cajuste has only caught three touchdowns this season, all of them coming during Stanford's blow out of Army.
Ty Montgomery hasn't fared much better, having at most nine catches in a game and never going over 86 yards receiving. Montgomery only has three touchdown receptions, the last coming way back in week four against Washington. When a team has a weapon like Montgomery, it is imperative to find a way to get him more catches, especially if the run game isn't working.
The bad news for Stanford is Utah's defense is currently ranked third in the Pac-12 in rushing defense. The front seven for Utah has always been strong against the run and this year appears to be no exception. Worse for Stanford, the pass defense for Utah is not far off, ranking fifth in the Pac-12. Unless something clicks for the offensive line and one of Stanford's running back steps up this week, the Cardinal will not be able to run themselves to victory against the Utes. Stanford is going to need Kevin Hogan to get Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste invovled against the Utah secondary. Even if Hogan is able to do that, it could still be a struggle for the Cardinal to move the ball effectively given Hogan's penchant for staring down receivers throwing interceptions.
For the Utes to have success, they need to stop the run early in the game. Let the Cardinal know they won't be able to run against the defensive line and force Hogan into throwing the ball. Once that happens, Orchard, Dimick and company can pin their ears back and go after Hogan the rest of the afternoon. Covering Montgomery and Cajuste could prove difficult, but if the D-line can control the line of scrimmage, it will force Hogan into uncomfortable situations where he is likely to turn the ball over.
Stanford's offense just isn't up to par with the Stanford offenses of the past, and if the Cardinal wins this game it will be because of their defense, which is ranked no. 1 in the Pac-12. The Utah defense will need to take advantage of turnovers they cause and might need to score a touchdown of their own, as the Utah offense should have their hands full with the Cardinal defense . It will be senior day at the Farm, and I expect Stanford to bring everything they have in a low-scoring, hard-fought, defensive battle. It won't be easy, but I think the Utes can get things turned back in the right direction and come out with the win. You can catch all the action at 4 p.m. MT on Pac -12 Network.