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Opponent Preview: Stanford’s Defense

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NCAA Football: Arizona State at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Today we take a look at the Stanford defense and how the Utes offense can exploit some weaknesses to its advantage. Before we get started though, for those of you that follow Utah football on Instagram, the jersey combination was released today. As I had hoped, we’re definitely getting the old school interlocking U helmets with the striped sleeve combo. They look fresh, and hopefully Utah will play as good as they look and “steal” this win at home.

STANFORD DEFENSE

We hear it every single year. A talking head in an awful gray suit, sporting a double Windsor knot tells us that “Stanford is the model of consistency. A well-coached, balanced team that is strong on both sides of the ball.” They’re kind of like the Tim Duncan of the Pac 12- about as exciting as a dose of Ambien, but hey, they get the job done.

This season, at least on defense, things seem a bit different. In five games, the Cardinal has given up 948 rushing yards and 4.84 yards per carry. This ranks 95th in the FBS behind UAB (a team that didn’t even have a football program two years ago) and perennial powerhouse BYU (my goal is to make at least one negative reference directed at BYU every time I write a piece for BlockU). In the air, teams have racked up 254.6 yards per game and scored nine times. Teams convert 46.5% of third downs against the Cardinal, and they’ve given up touchdowns on 11/16 opponent trips to the red zone. On the flip side, Stanford has forced 10 turnovers, picking the ball off two times against both of ESPN’s anointed first and second overall draft picks, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen (let's not give Stanford too much credit here- Darnold threw for 316 and Rosen threw for 480 against this defense). Basically, Stanford’s defense has some major holes in it. The question that’s begged, then, is whether Utah can capitalize on these weaknesses.

The answer depends on several factors, none less important than quarterback play. Unfortunately for us fans, Kyle Whittingham is more tight-lipped about the status of Tyler Huntley’s shoulder injury than Donald Trump is on his plans to bomb North Korea. And because of that, I’m going to assume that the starting quarterback on Saturday night will be Troy Williams. From what limited action we saw last week, Williams looked decent- he kept a drive alive on his first play, connecting with resident season saver, Darren Carrington II. He had a nice strike to Demari Simpkins, setting up his own touchdown scamper. That being said, a stat line of 9/18 and 131 yards (and a QBR of 57.8) looks, well, underwhelming. The Utes will need more, and hopefully we’ll see an adjustment from Troy Taylor to enhance the play of Williams.

One obvious (and necessary) supplement to a backup quarterback would be a boost in the running game. Last week, Zack Moss and Devonta’e Henry Cole (I’m just gonna start referring to him as Run DHC because it’s easier- someone has had to have thought of that nickname already) combined for 116 yards on 25 carries, with zero touchdowns. Again, the Utes will need more from the running game in both yardage and scoring to win this game. I look for the offense to use these players, along with Troy McCormick Jr., not only in the running game, but in the short passing offense. This will allow Williams to play within himself and hopefully open up some shots down the field later in the game.

I’ll be honest, after writing this, I’m not feeling very good about this matchup. While Troy Williams was a nine win quarterback last season, he had Joe Williams putting up Bryce Love-esque numbers in many of those wins. At times, the offense looked absolutely anemic under Troy- think the Colorado game in which he was 13/40 (I couldn’t believe that stat when I saw it). Utah is going to need a lot of help out of the backfield, and possibly some defense-turned-offense from the other side of the ball. Our picks will be out soon, but I’ve got the Utes by 2 this week (we’ll be too well dressed to lose this one).