By Winston Shi
Seeking to become bowl-eligible for the sixth consecutive season, Stanford faces No. 23 Utah on Saturday – its final home contest of the year. In advance of what should be a tough test for the Cardinal, The Stanford Daily’s Winston Shi talked with Ryan Miller of The Daily Utah Chronicle, the University of Utah’s student newspaper.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Utah’s having by far its best season in the Pac-12 this year. Considering record, talent, coaching, facilities and recruiting, do you think that the Utes have finally found their footing in the Power 5?
Ryan Miller (RM): I think the big difference for the Utes this season is they have learned how to win close games. A season ago, they had a number of opportunities to pull off victories but couldn’t make the necessary plays at the end. So in a sense, they have found their footing, but it’s a pretty slippery slope. Utah could have easily lost to UCLA, Oregon State and USC and if that had happened it would be sitting winless in conference play and everyone in Salt Lake would be ready to burn everything to the ground and start over. It’s amazing what a late field goal or a last minute touchdown can do.
Utah’s facilities and recruiting have all gotten better since entering the conference, and it is expected for that trend to continue upward. I’m not sure if the Utes will ever be considered a perennial power of the conference, but I think it’s clear they will be able to at least compete in the league consistently.
TSD: The Utes suffered a number of injuries on offense…not as many as last year, but still significant. In particular, Dres Anderson was a Cardinal killer last year. Considering that and the fact that Stanford figured out how to stop the fly sweep a few weeks after last year’s loss in Salt Lake City, how will the Utes attack Stanford?
RM: Against Oregon, the Utes revealed some new wrinkles in their offense that were previously unseen. There were double stack formations, a double running back read option and Devontae Booker was featured as a pass catcher. I think the latter is going to be crucial against Stanford. Booker is so critical to what Utah does on offense that it is essential for the Utes to find him space anyway they can.
Booker didn’t have the gaudy numbers rushing the ball against Oregon, but he more than made up for it in the passing game. Whether through the air or on the ground the Utes will try anything they can to get Booker the ball. If he can be productive then Utah’s offense will be productive, but if Stanford can shut the Ute tailback down it will be a long day for Travis Wilson and company.
TSD: Kyle Whittingham can field a powerful front seven against Stanford. But the Cardinal have been shifting towards a more spread-oriented scheme in part because there’s so much talent at tight end and wideout. Do the Utes have the horses in the secondary to stop Stanford’s speedy receivers?
RM: In short, no they probably don’t have the horses. The Utah secondary is improving, but just like the Oregon receivers were able to find holes, so should the Cardinal wideouts. But what Oregon did was nothing special. ASU and USC consistently had receivers beat Utah corners, but the ball was rarely able to reach them.
The Utes’ front seven has served as a security blanket for the Utah secondary. Their ability to pass rush has forced many quarterbacks not to be able to spot open receivers down field. The Utes know it is their strength and that’s why they rush so aggressively.
The difference against Oregon is that Marcus Mariota is damn good at football.
TSD: What were your takeaways from the Oregon game? Were you impressed by Utah’s performance? Or do you think that the game was ultimately disheartening?
RM: With all the stuff that went against Utah against Oregon, it’s hard not to be impressed. The Utes were one yard away from having their dream scenario – up two scores and being able to just lock down on defense. The Kaelin Clay fumble, drop, or whatever the hell you want to call it deflated that stadium in a way I have never seen before in any sport, at any level.
For the Utes to fight back from that kind of shell shock and even get it to within three in the fourth was impressive. In the end Utah gave a top-5 team a fight, and without one near-incomprehensible play it could have been much more than that.
TSD: Finally, do you have a prediction for the game? What does Utah need to do to beat Stanford? And vice versa?
RM: Covering Utah this season has taught me that I know absolutely nothing. Nothing makes sense, and that was once again driven home against Oregon – in so many ways.
Against Stanford I think we will see a true defensive battle. The Utes will force Hogan to beat them and will bring a lot of pressure, while I think Stanford will key in on Booker.
Utah is improved this season and the last few weeks their coaching staff has shown the ability to make uniqe game plans for opponents that have proved to be effective. In the end I don’t really know what we’ll see from the Utes, but I think they will be playing desperate and find a way to duplicate last year’s victory. Utah 17, Stanford 14.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.