Utah takes on Colorado State in the Vegas Bowl, so to learn more about the Rams, we had a Q & A with Josh Carvahlo of Mountain West Connection.
It's been five years since we've seen CSU, how is the program different?
Josh Carvahlo (Mountain West Connection): The program has gone under a major overhaul since the last time Utah and CSU have faced each other. In 2009, Steve Fairchild was the head coach in CSU's second season after Sonny Lubick. CSU didn't have an identity under Fairchild. After three straight 3-9 seasons, CSU fired Fairchild and hired Jim McElwain, the offensive coordinator from Alabama. The moment McElwain walked through the doors at the Fum McGraw Athletic Center, the whole athletic department has been striving for excellence. McElwain built a program around doing what is right and expecting to win. After a 4-8 season in his first year at CSU, the Rams are 18-8 and now have the mentality, not that they can win, but that they will win.
What are CSU fans' thoughts on playing a former conference rival?
Josh Carvahlo (Mountain West Connection): Fans that I have spoken to have mixed feelings about playing Utah. Some fans are excited because they remember the excitement that the old conference games used to bring, notably the 2005 game in Fort Collins when CSU scored 18 points in the 4th quarter and the defense stopped the Utah offense three times on the goal line to win the game. Other fans are a bit disappointed because they wanted to see a different Pac-12 matchup against a "bigger" named opponent. Overall, there is just so much excitement about going to the Las Vegas Bowl and having the opportunity to play against a P5 opponent.
How would you expect the team to respond to the loss of head coach Jim McElwain to Florida?
Josh Carvahlo (Mountain West Connection): I expect the team to play with their hearts on their sleeve. This is the final game for some of the best players to ever wear the green and gold, notably quarterback Garrett Grayson and offensive tackle Ty Sambraillo. Losing a head coach like McElwain is always going to be tough loss, but the players know that it is a part of the business. This football team is playing for each other, and playing for their current coaches as they try to finish off one of the best seasons in school history.
Utah has an impressive pass rush, how has CSU
Josh Carvahlo (Mountain West Connection): The offensive line has gone through some serious injury problems, losing three starting linemen this season. With so many injuries up front, there has been a lot of moving around up front. Fortunately, offensive line coach Derek Frazier does a good job getting his lineman ready to play multiple different positions up front. That being said, the Ram's have only played one team with a very impressive pass rush. That team was Utah State. Against Utah State, CSU let up 8 sacks, though that number is a little high due to Grayson's lack of mobility due to a nagging groin injury.
CSU has one of the top tackles in the country at left tackle in Ty Sambraillo, who has excellent feet and is projected to be a first round draft pick in the NFL. That being said, right tackle Sam Carlson is a solid player, but compared to right tackles in the Pac-12, Carlson doesn't compare. If Orchard is lined up against Carlson, I'd expect running backs Dee Hart and Treyous Jarrells to stay in during pass coverage to help Carlson with Orchard and give Grayson time to make his reads. I would also expect to see some delay screens to use Orchard and the defense's aggressiveness to their advantage.
When Utah has the ball, where can they attack CSU?
Josh Carvahlo (Mountain West Connection): Utah's best chance at attacking CSU's defense is through the air. The Ram's strength is their front seven. Linebackers Max Morgan and Aaron Davis play the run very well. The Ram's secondary, though they are improving every week, is still relatively young and allows the big play here and there. CSU's pass rush is also lacking this season after losing MWC's Defensive POY Shaq Barrett. With only 19 sacks on the season, that puts a lot of pressure on the secondary to cover for a long time.
Utah has arguably the best special teams in the country with Kaelin Clay returning kicks, Andy Phillips place kicking, and the Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett punting, how does CSU matchup special teams wise?
Josh Carvahlo (Mountain West Connection): Automatic Andy and the Aussie Football punter Tom Hackett
makeup surely the best kicking tandem in all of college football. Not to mention a first team all-conference returner Kaelin Clay. CSU has a pretty good kicking duo of their own. Kicker Jared Roberts is 11-18 on the season, and 56-57 on extra points. He has a long of 53 yards, so he has the range to give CSU a chance for points, as he is 3-4 on kicks of 50 yards or more. Punter Hayden Hunt is one of the better punters in college football. He has an average of 43.8 yards per punt, with 12 punts of 50 yards or more, as well as 12 punts inside the 20 yard line. Kick returns are handled by true freshman DeionteGaines, who averages 26.5 yards per return, but CSU has not returned a kick or a punt for a touchdown this year. I would say that Utah definitely has the advantage on special teams.
CSU has given up some rushing yards this season, especially in their losses. How do you think CSU will deal with Devontae Booker?Josh Carvahlo (Mountain West Connection): Yes, CSU has given up a lot rushing yards this season, but those numbers are also a little inflated. CSU has played a couple triple option teams that throw the ball only 10-15 times a game in New Mexico and Air Force. Boston College is another team that focuses on running the ball by spreading the defense out and letting their quarterback make his reads.
I would say that Boise State is the only game where CSU was just outclassed by their opponent while they were on defense. Boise has one of the most dynamic running backs in the country in Jay Ajayi, and Ajayi, with the addition of quarterback Grant Hedrick,
wereable to gash the Rams for 324 yards on the ground (676 total yards). From what I have seen of Utah, Booker is a beast and compares well to Ajayi. I think that CSU's game planwill be to keyon Booker and let Wilson beat them, either on the ground with his feet or through the air with his arm. Safeties Trent Matthews and Kevin Pierre-Louis will need to make sure they wrap up if Booker reaches them to make sure they don't give up the big play.
If you were game planing against CSU, how would you try to beat them, on both offense and defense?
Josh Carvahlo (Mountain West Connection): If I'm trying to stop
CSU's offense, I'm going to get after Garrett Grayson. If you can keep Grayson moving around the pocket instead of standing comfortably then there is a good chance you can limit the big play. Grayson can get some yards on the ground, but he isn't going to kill you with rushing yards. Also, the less comfortable Grayson is, the harder it is to get the ball into Rashard Higgins hands. The Rams do have a good run game as well, with Dee Hart netting over 1,200 yards on the year, however, the run game is most efficient when teams cannot stop Grayson. Look at the Boise game: stop Grayson and you stop the Rams.
On defense, I would attack the secondary, and look for the big play. The Rams tend to be a bend but don't break defense. They certainly allow a lot of yards, but they also are able to come
away lettingup field goals rather than touchdowns. Lacking a solid pass rush, Wilson will be able to take some shots against some young corner backs.
What is your prediction for this game?
Josh Carvahlo (Mountain West Connection): My prediction is that it will be a very close game. CSU will certainly be playing with a lot of emotion. Though Utah has a great pass rush, Grayson has a great offensive tackle protecting his blind slide. I see CSU's explosive offense making just a few more play's than Utah. Rams win 28-27.
Thanks Josh for taking the time to answer the questions! Make sure to check out Josh, as well as the other writers that cover the Utes old conference, the Mountain West, at MWCConnection.com!