The No. 22 Utes (8-4) head to Las Vegas to take on old Mountain West Conference foe Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday. The Rams went 10-2 in the regular season and earned a reputation for having a high-scoring offense under now departed coach Jim McElwain. Even with McElwain's departure, the team will be coached by offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin and is sure to put some points on the scoreboard. If the Utes are to win, they will need to find a way to get the offense in gear and limit Colorado State's scoring opportunities.
Feed the Beast:
The first, and most obvious key to the game, is giving the ball to Utah's best offensive player. That player is junior running back Devontae Booker. Where would the Utes be without the 5-11, 203-pound Booker this season? Booker is where the offense begins and ends for this Utes squad. Colorado State is a team that can put some points on the board, 35.9 points per game to be exact, so getting Booker going will be imperative. Booker will not only provide offense, but long, sustained drives with Booker pounding between the tackles will keep Garrett Grayson and the Rams offense off the field.
The Utes will need to keep the Colorado State defense honest to prevent the Rams from stacking the box against Booker. One way to do this is to call safe passing plays to senior tight end Westlee Tonga. Travis Wilson has had success throwing the ball to Tonga, hitting him for four touchdowns this season. Tonga provides a big target for Wilson, and having Tonga involved in the passing game will pull a linebacker out of the box and into coverage. This will open things up for a more balanced attack as well as give Wilson some confidence for throwing the deep ball later in the game.
South Sack Lake City:
The Utes will need to turn Las Vegas into Sack Lake City to help their odds of knocking off the Rams. Senior Rams quarterback Garrett Grayson leads a Colorado State attack that averages 326.3 yards per game through the air. Grayson has been terriffic, throwing for 32 touchdowns against only six interceptions. When given time in the pocket, Grayson can pick a defense apart. Grayson is not a mobile quarterback, however, and fits more in the mold of a Cody Kessler or Sean Mannion. The Utes should employ a similar strategy as they did to defeat those two, by bringing a heavy pass rush to make things uncomfortable for the Rams' quarterback. He won't beat you with his legs, so no need to worry about Colorado State pulling an "Arizona" where they allowed the Utes to over run the quarterback before taking it upfield through the resulting gaps. If the Utes can force Grayson into a turnover or two, it will greatly aide the Utes in keeping the Rams from turning the game into a shootout.
Give CSU the Boot:
The Ray Guy award winner, Tom Hackett, will be on display, and his skills will be needed as usual. Hackett, now a consensus All American, proved to be one of the Utes most lethal weapons this year, and he will be called upon to pin Colorado State deep in Saturday's game. The more yards the Rams have to travel, the less likely they are to score. Forcing the Rams to start drives inside their own 20- or even 10-yard line should give Utah a big advantage in this game.
Utes returner/wide receiver Kaelin Clay will have an opportunity to redeem himself in front of a national audience from the "fumble seen 'round the world." Clay is due for another big return, and there would be nothing sweeter than to close out his college career with one in a bowl game. No matter how well the Utes defense is able to play, Colorado State is going to score some points. With how anemic the Utes offense has been this year, a return from Clay could be the kind of play needed to put the favored Pac-12 team over the top. Even if Colorado State kicks away from him all game, Dave Christensen will need to get the ball in Clay's hands somehow on offense. He will be the most explosive player on the field, and getting Clay in space is a must.
Tune in on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. MT on ABC to catch the Utes and Rams battle it out in Las Vegas.