Utah: the final frontier of Stanford football domination.
Believe it or not, the Utes are the only team left in the Pac-12 against which the Cardinal does not own an active winning streak. Stanford hasn’t taken on Utah since 1996, however, so the Utes will be facing a very different type of Stanford team.
That doesn’t mean that Utah can’t beat the Cardinal. Anyone who saw Utah almost beat UCLA last Thursday night — even with quarterback Travis Wilson throwing six interceptions — knows that, at least at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utes are a dangerous opponent.
The keys to this game start with the quarterbacks. Stanford junior quarterback Kevin Hogan needs to rebound from a very weak performance against Washington. Hogan looked jittery in the pocket all night long, made bad decisions and missed open receivers even when he made the right reads. He has to be better for Stanford to win the Pac-12.
The difficulty for Hogan Saturday afternoon will be that he is again facing a very strong defensive line. The Utes graduated a first-round NFL draft pick in nose tackle Star Lotulelei, but somehow the unit hasn’t missed a beat. Defensive ends Nate Orchard and Trevor Reilly are both returning starters who earned honorable mention all-Pac-12 honors in 2012 and will be tasked with applying pressure on Hogan without the help of blitzing linebackers.
Stanford’s offensive line has been pretty stout in pass protection on the season, but a few lapses can have a noticeable impact. If Utah’s linemen can battle Stanford’s mammoths up front and get enough pressure on Hogan to keep him out of rhythm again, the Utes might be able to pull off the upset.
On the other side of the ball, Wilson is going to have to show some serious mental toughness to bounce back from a six-interception performance. Stanford’s defense is opportunistic and loves rattling the quarterback. Heck, if I got hit by fifth-year senior linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov a few times, I’d be rattled too.
Wilson is going to have to be mentally tougher than I am, however, as Stanford is a much better team than UCLA and will win by a lot more than seven points if Wilson throws six interceptions. It will be difficult for Wilson, as his offensive line looked mediocre against UCLA, and rumor has it that his two top tight ends will both be out on Saturday; but he’s a talented quarterback who certainly can give defenses nightmares.
The one non-quarterback X-factor in this matchup is Stanford’s dominant special teams unit. Obviously, the group took center stage against Washington with Ty Montgomery’s two big returns, but Stanford has been slyly picking up yards on every special teams play all year long. My favorite stat: Stanford’s average start on kickoffs is 12 yards better than that of its opponents. That translates to a little over one point of expected value on every kickoff. That’s a good way to win games. The question this weekend: Will the altitude in Salt Lake City shrink this edge? We’ll see soon enough.
Sam Fisher hopes his…edge won’t shrink in the Salt Lake City altitude. If you feel his pain, email him at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.