The Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl will pit the no.22 Utah Utes (8-4) against Colorado State (10-2), programs that are no stranger to each other, having played together in the WAC and Mountain West conferences from 1967 up until Utah departed for the PAC-12 in 2011. Utah should be able to relate to Colorado State’s position, having come into many bowl games as a top lower tier conference team looking to knock off a Power 5 school. Now the shoe is on the other foot and this game will provide a look at how far (or how little) the Utes have come from their Mountain West Conference days.
"It's great to be back playing in the postseason. One of the biggest benefits is the extra practice work for the younger players. It's almost like another spring camp. Having the seniors play in a bowl game is huge" Utah head coach Kyle Wittingham said
Colorado State has seen dramatic improvement the last three years under former coach Jim McElwain. The Rams have gone from 3-9 the year before McElwain arrived, to 10-2 this season. McElwain is gone from the program however, after having accepted the head coaching position at Florida. In his place, interim coach Dave Baldwin will lead the Rams. Baldwin served as the offensive coordinator at Colorado State under McElwain and spent four seasons as the head coach at San Jose State from 1997 to 2000. Baldwin most certainly would like to take over the Colorado State head coach position permanently and today’s game will serve as an audition. Expect the Rams to come out ready to play.
The Las Vegas Bowl provides one of the better matchups of the non New Year’s six bowls despite being played on the very first day of the bowl season. On display will be a potent Colorado State offense averaging 35.9 points per game and 7.21 yards per play against Ted Hendricks award winner Nate Orchard and an elite Utah pass rush that ranks first in the country with 52 sacks this year.
"They are very explosive on offense and a very good football team. They will be a big challenge, but we are very excited to play them" Wittingham said.
The Rams have an explosive tandem on the offensive side of the ball in 6-2 220 lb. senior quarterback Garrett Grayson and 6-2 188 lb. sophomore receiver and Biletnikoff finalist Rashard Higgins. Grayson completed 64.8% of his passes for 3,779 yard and 32 touchdowns this year. Higgins was on the receiving end of 1,640 of those yards and 17 of those touchdowns. Higgins caught 89 of Grayson’s 250 completions this year meaning more than a third of Grayson’s completions went to Higgins. In addition, Higgins accoutned for 43% of the Rams total receiving yards and 53% of touchdowns through the air.
Colorado State is not just a passing team however. The Rams balance their air attack with 5-9 190 lb. junior running back Dee Hart. Hart rushed 187 times this year for 1,254 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 6.71 yards per carry. Coming into the game to spell Hart, is 5-7 185 junior tailback Treyous Jarrells with 437 yards and 6 touchdowns this season.
The balanced attack of Colorado State will give the Utes a lot to defend this afternoon. That being said, the defense should be able to get after Grayson when he drops back to pass. The Utes are averaging 4.3 sacks per game as a team and have not recorded fewer than 2 sacks in game this year. Grayson is not a particularily mobile quarterback, so Dimick and Orchard will not need to worry too much about playing contain and can focus on simply trying to bring Grayson down.
In the secondary the Utes will need to gameplan for Higgins. Utah has had to defend against many talented receivers this year from Ty Montgomery to Devin Funchess to Nelson Agholar.Look for Kalani Sitake to use a big corner such as Eric Rowe to matchup with Higgins and try to limit his receptions.
Excluding the Arizona game, Utah has been solid against the run. Dee Hart will provide a challenge and has been tearing it up, going for over 100 yards in the last four games. The Utah defense is a different animal than the likes of New Mexico, San Jose State and Hawaii however, and Lowell Lotuleilei and the linebacking corp should be able to keep Hart in check.
On defense Colorado State is a bit of a mixed bag. The Rams rank 89th in run defense, 66th in pass defense and 84th in total defense. Yet their scoring defense ranks 34th giving up only 23.4 points per game. So while the Rams surrender a lot of yards, they manage to keep their opponents out of the endzone frequently.
The defense for Colorado State has some good players in senior linebackers Max Morgan and Aaron Davis. Both defend the run well combining for 106 tackles this year. In the secondary sophomore Tyree Simmons and junior Trent Matthews have three interceptions each.
One unit of Colorado State’s defense Utah should look to exploit is the defensive line. The Rams are giving up 4.6 yards per carry on the ground this year. In addition, Colorado State has had trouble getting into the backfield, recording only 19 sacks on the year. This bodes well for the Utes in a couple different facets. Devontae Booker should be able to power through the line and pick up good yards. Booker is the best back this Colorado State team will have faced and Booker has averaged 5.08 yards per carry this season against more formidable Pac-12 defenses.
In the pass game, the lack of pressure should allow Travis Wilson some time to go through his progressions and make calm, comfortable throws in the pocket. The extra time Wilson has in the pocket should allow Clay to get behind the Ram’s secondary for some deep shots as well. The Utes will need a good game from Wilson as points will be at a premium against a high scoring CSU team.
The Utes aim for their ninth win and will try to improve Kyle Wittingham’s 7-1 bowl record today in Vegas. If the Utes win, it will mark their best overall record since joining the Pac-12 and serve as a launching point for next season. Lose and Utah matches the 8-5 record of the inaugural Pac-12 season. It will be a tough game and Colorado State will be hungry for the win. It won't be enough to overcome the talent gap however, as Utah pulls away late to secure their ninth win.
CSU - 21