In advance of Saturday’s football game between Stanford and Utah, The Daily’s Winston Shi chatted with Ryan McDonald, sports editor for the Utah Daily Chronicle, Utah’s student newspaper, to get perspective from both camps.
Winston Shi (WS): Looking at Utah’s schedules in recent years, Stanford is the best conference opponent Utah has welcomed to Rice-Eccles since the Pac-12 became a thing. Two and a bit years into the Pac-12 experiment, how is the Utah football program? How are you adjusting to the increased strength of schedule, how is the fan base taking the growing pains (and a losing season), and is recruiting improving?
Ryan McDonald (RM): All in all, the program is in a good place. There have definitely been growing pains, but things this year are actually considerably better than I expected them to be. [Quarterback Travis] Wilson wasn’t good as a freshman and I wasn’t confident that he would progress much from last year to this year, but he’s been excellent. Yes, he threw six interceptions last Thursday, but only two of them were his fault, and [head coach Kyle] Whittingham revealed Monday that Wilson was sick last Thursday, so that affected him.
Going back to the program, a new $32-million football facility was built and is now open. It’s an incredibly gaudy place, and Whittingham is hopeful that’ll help recruiting in the future.
So I think the pace of progression has been accelerated this season more than most thought it would, making where the team is at now better than what I think many people expected.
WS: Definitely Utah’s been using some of that Pac-12 cash flow. It certainly allowed them to bring in Dennis Erickson as offensive coordinator. What’s Erickson been doing with the Ute offense?
RM: Transforming it. To be serious, a lot of great things are happening with the offense. They didn’t have a quarterback last year (yeah, Wilson began starting halfway through the season, but he was thrown into the fire so I don’t think anything he did last year can be considered), which trickled down into the rest of the offense. The receivers couldn’t do anything without a decent quarterback and so even though they had a good running back, he was less effective because the passing game didn’t work. This year, the passing game is doing very well. They lost their No. 2 receiver, Kenneth Scott, for the year in the season opener, but No. 1 option Dres Anderson has been great.
It’s tough to know how much is because of Wilson and how much is because of Erickson’s schemes, but I’ll put it this way: Wilson is capable of running whatever Erickson wants, so I think the combination of Wilson and Erickson is what is making things work so well.
WS: Do you think that Utah is going to try to run the ball? Throw the ball? And how does losing star tight end Jake Murphy play into that?
RM: As far as the tight end situation goes, Murphy hasn’t been utilized as much as I thought he would be, so I’m not sure how huge of a loss it will be, but I will say this: Tight end was going to be a strength this year with Murphy and Westlee Tonga, but they’re both going to be out on Saturday. If Tonga was going to be there, Utah would have been okay at tight end on Saturday because, like I said, it’s not like they’re throwing to the tight ends on every play. But with both of them being out, that presents a problem.
WS:So Tonga is definitely going to be out?
RM: As far as I’ve been made aware.
WS: Especially with fewer healthy tight ends, Utah needs to keep an eye out for the Stanford pass rush. How is Utah’s offensive line doing this season?
RM: It’s been good, but not wonderful. They were expecting good things with [left tackle] C.J. Poutasi and [left guard] Jeremiah Tofaeono, but so far they haven’t been anything to write home about. Like I said, they haven’t been awful by any means, but they haven’t been great. I know Wilson is counting on the Stanford pass rush being tough.
WS: Wilson has already faced a good front seven in UCLA and he threw six picks. Even though a lot of them weren’t his fault, is Wilson ready to handle the sort of guys Stanford can throw at him?
RM: That’s the million-dollar question. Oregon State’s defensive line played well in the game a few weeks ago and Wilson did pretty well. He also played well against a good BYU defense. That being said, even though he was sick, last Thursday was the first time this season he played poorly, so I don’t know how he’ll respond. He’s a pretty focused guy, so I think he’ll do OK, but I haven’t seen him have to bounce back like this before.
WS: I’m sure Stanford football appreciates the compliment. But of course you can’t talk about one side of the trenches without mentioning the other. The general consensus is that the game will be decided in the trenches, and Utah obviously lost a truly superlative talent in Star Lotulelei. How will Utah corral a strong Cardinal offensive line?
RM: The Utah D-line is very, very good. The reason the Utes only lost by seven to UCLA even though they had six turnovers is because the defensive line played so well. It was actually pretty outstanding how impressive they were. [Defensive tackle] Tenny Palepoi is a beast. He was in Lotulelei’s shadow, but Whittingham said often during fall camp that Palepoi is almost as good as Lotulelei, and now we’re seeing that the rest of the line is really good, too.
WS: Well, that should ensure at least solid play. Utah’s had some issues with close games though — is that just an aberration, or do you think the Oregon State and UCLA games display true issues with Utah’s play?
RM: I’m not so sure the fact that Utah couldn’t win a close game is an issue, but those games definitely highlighted some struggles. The UCLA game was because of the turnovers, but the Oregon State game was because of Utah’s secondary. It was brand new except for safety Eric Rowe coming into the season, and that unit struggled early on. As it has turned out, Sean Mannion has done to everyone what he did to Utah, but still, the Utes’ secondary struggled in that game. The secondary is coming along, though. They’ve played pretty well in the past two games. Ty Montgomery is a concern.
As for closing out close games, I actually think Utah is in good shape with that. Kicker Andy Phillips has been a revelation this season. He’s perfect on field goals and PATs, something Utah hasn’t seen in a long, long time. He’s done well under pressure, too.
WS: Keeping all these things in mind: What’s your prediction? How do you see the game turning out?
RM I ultimately think Stanford has too much for Utah to handle, but I don’t think it’ll be a blowout. Last I checked, the Vegas line was 9½ and I’ve been saying somewhere between 10 and 17 points all week long.
WS: The final tally, then?
RM: Let’s say 34-20 for Stanford.
WS: I think it’s going to be similar to that, although I honestly
don’t know what’s going to happen. I think it’s a bit more low-scoring than that, perhaps a 31-13 affair, but it’s big-time college football: Anything and probably everything can and will happen.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.