Going into Saturday’s matchup in Salt Lake City, the Stanford Cardinal owns an active winning streak against 11 of the 12 teams in the Pacific-12 conference. From blowouts like the dismantling of Washington State at CenturyLink Field two weeks ago to nail-biters like the overtime thriller against Oregon at Autzen last season, the Cardinal has seen it all in its most recent trip around its conference.
And when the No. 5 Cardinal (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12) takes on Utah (3-2, 0-2) for the first time since 1996 at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the defending Pac-12 champions will finally get the opportunity to check the 12th and final team off of that list and notch the last win of a victorious circuit of one of the toughest conferences in the nation.
Although the Utes are still winless in conference play after a heartbreaking seven-point loss against UCLA last weekend, the Cardinal cannot afford to catch itself looking past an upstart Utah team to the toughest stretch of its 2013 schedule — consecutive games against UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon — and fall victim to the classic “trap game” scenario against a team that is better than its record suggests.
One of the matchup’s significant factors — in both the Utes’ quest to pull off one of the biggest upsets of the year and the Cardinal’s quest to avoid falling from the ranks of the undefeated — will be the ability for both second-year quarterbacks to bounce back from subpar performances.
However, the similarities between the pocket-passers for the two teams do not stop there. Both sophomore Travis Wilson for the Utes and junior Kevin Hogan for the Cardinal established themselves as the starters of their respective teams midway through last season.
Wilson started the final seven games last season after starting quarterback Jordan Wynn injured his shoulder in the second game of the season and chose to retire. Many were skeptical of head coach Kyle Whittingham’s choice to start the freshman Wilson over veteran John Hays, but Wilson has emerged in a big way this season after going 3-4 as a starter in 2012.
The sophomore has already passed for 1,406 yards through five games to go with an impressive 248 yards on the ground. Wilson couples a 6-foot-7, 240-pound frame with his scrappy scrambling ability, characteristics that are shared with Hogan and have kept opposing defenses on their toes all season long.
“The thing is, he can see it all,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “He’s a head above everybody. They don’t get a lot of balls deflected, which is one thing we get pretty good at. He’s a better athlete than a tall guy should be…If you think you got a beat on him, he’ll push up in the pocket and take off on you. It’s about containing and making sure that we keep guys on all sides of him and squeeze because you can’t let him scramble for first downs.”
However, the Utes were truly sunk last weekend — in a game they arguably should have won — by the six interceptions thrown by Wilson. Only two of the picks, however, could completely be attributed to bad decisions by the sophomore, who had also been battling an illness in the days leading up to the contest. No matter the reason, Utah’s offense will have to limit the turnovers against a Stanford defense that has forced at least one turnover in each of its last 29 contests.
The Utes’ strong passing game took a major step back when big tight end Jake Murphy underwent a potentially season-ending surgery after playing through a broken wrist in the second half against UCLA. The Utes’ other primary tight end, Westlee Tonga, is expected to be out against Stanford after missing the UCLA game with an injury, leaving Wilson with two fewer big targets to look for downfield.
On Stanford’s side, Hogan improved his unblemished record as a starter to 10-0 last weekend despite having one of the least productive nights of his career. Against a stingy Huskies secondary, Hogan could only complete 12 of his 20 passes for a very pedestrian 100 yards. Washington’s defensive backs read his eyes effectively and played airtight coverage, giving Hogan very few opportunities to work with.
Because of the lack of opportunities to make plays with his arm and consistently push the ball downfield, Hogan never settled into a rhythm and missed his receivers on the few occurrences in which they were open.
A very inexperienced Utah secondary, ranking 101st in the FBS with over 274 passing yards allowed per game, should provide an opportunity for Hogan to regain his bearings and return to form.
However, as Hogan attempts to make his presence known from the pocket, Stanford’s offensive line will have to hold off a strong Utah pass rush that has not lost a step after losing star defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to the NFL. Led by junior linebacker Jacoby Hale and senior defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi, the Utes have compiled 18 sacks through five games, good for fourth in the nation.
Despite three injury scares within Stanford’s starting front seven during the Washington game — junior linebacker James Vaughters, fifth-year senior defensive end Ben Gardner and fifth-year senior linebacker Shayne Skov all went down (much to the ire of Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian) — all three have improved significantly and look to be good to bring pressure on Wilson throughout Saturday afternoon. Nose tackle David Parry has also missed practice this week with a lower-abdominal injury, but is expected to play.
While Stanford’s front seven will attempt to unleash its pressure on Wilson, it will be playing at altitude, a factor that is likely to tire players out more quickly. However, Shaw and his players are not concerned.
“Usually with the altitude games, it’s the first quarter and a half,” Shaw said. “The first time you get a little winded, trying to suck the air in, but your bodies adjust. We haven’t had an issue in the second half of any game.”
Indeed, Stanford was not put off by a higher altitude when it visited Boulder to take on the Colorado Buffaloes last year, a game that it won 48-0 as Hogan established himself as the Cardinal’s starter of the future. When he takes the field again in thinner air this Saturday, he will not be trying to establish himself as an individual. Rather, he will be trying to solidify his team’s status as a firm national-title contender this time around.
Stanford and Utah will kick off at 3 p.m. PDT on Saturday from Salt Lake City with the Cardinal attempting to improve its record to 6-0 leading up to a Pac-12 Championship rematch against UCLA.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.