Behind Enemy Lines - Utah

After a one-week hiatus, our Behind Enemy Lines feature has returned thanks to the help of James Durrant of We pump Durrant for information about the Utah football team before the Utes come to Fort Collins this weekend for a tilt with the Colorado State Rams. After finishing the season undefeated and ranked second in the nation a year ago, what has been the Utes' focus this season? They have a couple strong early-season wins over the likes of Louisville, but a loss to a very strong Oregon team. If you had to characterize the Utah team this year, how would you best describe them?
Durrant: Inconsistent. Utah is going through growing pains this season which had led to inconsistent play especially on offense. The right side of the offensive line is new, the quarterback is new, the receivers have never played starters minutes. As a result, receivers are dropping passes, open receivers are being missed, and the blocking has been spotty. The times when the young players are on the same page, Utah's offense has been
very good, but they will go through stretches in games where everything is out of sync. Defensively Utah is solid and has really come on strong the last few games in the turnover department. Even here the Utes have been inconsistent; great against the run one week, bad the next. With the graduation losses Utah encountered offensively and defensively, this team doesn't appear to have missed a step - especially on paper. Take me through the offense and tell me how the Utes lost their starting quarterback from a year ago and actually lead the Mountain West Conference with 432 total yards per game? Terrance Cain kicks in 228 passing yards a game and another 52 yards per game on the ground. Tell us what makes him a special player and how his abilities have influenced the Utes offense.
Durrant: While Utah's offense has been putting up a lot of yards, those yards have not translated into points. Short yardage and goal-to-go situations have really hurt the Utah offense and there have been far too many empty possessions. Utah has only scored six touchdowns in 15 trips inside the 20, and a lot of that is due to the inconsistencies of the inexperienced offense. Missed field goals have hurt as well. Cain's biggest strength is that he knows his weaknesses and does a good job of playing within his limits. Cain does not have the biggest arm and is not the greatest runner, but he is calm and efficient. He will occasionally force a throw but for the most part is willing to take a sack or throw the ball away than force it. It is his calm demeanor that is his biggest influence on an inexperienced offense. Cain does not get too high after a big play or too low after a turnover and that has helped in the transition in personnel and offensive coordinator. I would not say Cain is a special player yet but is working his way there, getting better and more comfortable in the new offense each and every week. While Utah does run a spread offense, they are averaging five yards per carry and have three runners with better than 200 yards already this year. How are the Utes able to move the ball on the ground so well and what does each back bring to the table?
Durrant:To Utah, the term "spread offense" is a means to establish the running game. Utah will put 3 and 4 WR's out wide to create an "in the box" advantage, especially with a QB like Cain who is a good runner. Utah consistently plays with 6-7 players "in the box" and each player must be accounted for due to the running QB. With Utah's talent at WR that leaves the defense in a numbers crunch: Do we play man coverage and try to outnumber the Utes in the box with 7-8 players and risk getting beat by the pass or do we defend the pass by playing the safeties back and risk getting gashed by the run? With 4 WR's spread across the entire width of the field, defensive fronts get more spread out and seams can open up in the running game. Utah's scheme allows runners to read the defense and the blocking up front, make one cut and hit that seam. It doesn't hurt that Utah's receivers are excellent blockers.
Utah lost their leading rusher, Matt Asiata, for the season early in the last game. Asiata's bruising style will be missed. Even with the main running threat gone, Utah will not change their offensive scheme much other than to match the abilities of the personnel. Cain is quick on his feet and surprisingly fast. He also know when to slide and avoid taking unnecessary hits. Eddie Wide steps in for Asiata, and is a completely different type of back. Wide is smaller, faster, and quicker. Kyle Whittingham describes
Wide as "a darter, he's got great quickness, great change of direction, he can start and stop on a dime". Wide is a capable replacement and ran for 129 yards against Louisville in essentially three quarters of work.
Wide's usual backup Sausan Shakerin (saw-sawn shaw-care-een) is questionable for the game with wrist and shoulder injuries and will most likely not play. "Shak" is a big runner who plays smaller than his size due to an upright running style but has great speed. When Shak does get low and runs behind his pads, he is a very dangerous runner who can break tackles up front while outrunning the pursuit. Shak's only run of the season was a 46-yard scamper.
Expect to see a lot of WR Shaky Smithson. With Shak out Smithson will be the backup running back. Smithson was a jack-of-all-trades in junior college, playing every skill position on offense so lining up in the backfield in not new to him. Smithson is a hybrid player who has good speed and quickness, but can get low and run with surprising power for a 210 pounder. Smithson is an exciting player with the ball in his hands, due to the way he approaches the game. "My number one goal is to get the ball in the endzone and play every play like it's my last." Smithson is also excited for the expected snowy conditions. The Baltimore native says he likes the snow and "had one of my best games in snow."
After Wide, Shak, and Smithson, Utah is very thin at running back. Defensively, Utah leads the Mountain West in pass efficiency (under 50 percent) and have picked off four passes while allowing just two touchdown passes all season. Tell us about the Utah defense and how teams have tried to attack it this season.
Durrant: Basically, opponents have run the ball right at the Utes, with success. Utah's run defense was supposed to be the strength of the defense and has not performed up to expectations. With starting defensive tackle Lei Talamaivao out with a broken leg, Utah will have to get creative to stop the run. Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake is not happy with the way the defense has played and places much of that blame on himself. Utah's defense finally started to look like a complete unit playing up to Sitake's "Utah defense" standard against Louisville but could have their hands full against a Colorado State offense that can and will attack both on the ground and through the air. Finally, what are your three keys to the game and your prediction on the final score?
Durrant: 1. Stop the run. Utah's defense is at their best when they can use down-and-distance to their advantage. With Talamaivao out this is an even bigger concern. Utah has been excellent at stopping opponents on third downs this season (19%) and getting three-and-outs will be huge in a tight game in bad weather. That starts by stopping the run.
2.  No empty possessions in the redzone. With the kicking game seemingly taken care of, the Utes now need to focus on scoring touchdowns inside the 20. Losing Asiata might be a blessing in disguise here, as the Utah offense had a tendency to rely on him too much despite defenses keying on the run and will now have to get others involved.
3. Get the Homecoming crowd out of the game early. The Utes have yet to play well on the road this season and an early lead to silence the home crowd will go a long way to providing some needed confidence.
Final Score: Utah 24 Colorado State 14