Stanford (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12) might have looked pretty good the past two weeks, but make no mistake, its battle at No. 20 Utah (4-0, 1-0) is not going to be an easy one.
For starters, the atmosphere itself will be intense. Not only is Rice-Eccles a notoriously loud stadium, but it’s homecoming weekend for the Utes, meaning the stadium will almost certainly be packed and very energetic. It’s also 4,600 feet above sea level, which is worth noting as an adjustment, compared to Stanford’s 62 feet.
On top of the harsh environment, the Utes do not mess around on defense.
Utah ranks 10th nationally against the run, as well as the 18th-ranked scoring defense. For comparison, UCLA and ASU were both ranked in the hundreds. Stanford hasn’t been tested against this sort of defense in a while, and this game will be a litmus test for the rest of the season.
The bright side is that the Utes haven’t seen anything like junior running back Bryce Love. Leading the nation with 1,088 rushing yards after just five games, he averages 11.1 yards per carry. But it isn’t just his big, flashy runs that make him a great back.
“Everybody can see those, but it’s the four-yard run that he makes an 11-yard run,” head coach David Shaw said. “It’s the one that could be three yards or hit in the backfield that ends up being nine yards.”
Regardless of Love’s prowess, Utah will certainly slow him down, but the Cardinal can hope that he won’t be stopped.
Further on Stanford’s offense, senior quarterback Keller Chryst is healthy again. Whether or not you believe that he’s better than Costello, Shaw has been characteristically cagey on the subject. But, he did say that “there’s nothing wrong with guys competing,” and that odds were that both will play. This strategy might help Stanford balance our offense out enough to keep Utah from just stacking the box to stop the run — just so long as the offensive line keeps it together.
However, Utah is not going to be a pushover on offense either. Though its starting quarterback is out, the backup, Troy Williams, is as good as many starters in the Pac-12, and he has good receivers as well. The Utes don’t have as much as a run game, but the Stanford secondary has been in and out of injuries, which could really set the tone of this game. Furthermore, the Cardinal currently ranks 115th in the nation on defensive third-down conversions. If Stanford wants to win, it has to keep the pass threat to a minimum and figure out a way to apply pressure while maintaining coverage.
On a positive note, safety Justin Reid is tied for third nationally with four interceptions. “When he sees [the ball], he goes so fast he passes his own teammates sometimes and gets there before guys who are closer,” said Shaw of Reid. In addition, UCLA and ASU’s quarterbacks were both marked as threats coming in, and while the Cardinal didn’t stop them, they still came out on top.
In the end, a lot of pieces have to be in the right place for Stanford to win, but it is possible — though it will almost certainly be close.
The game will be televised on FS1 at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 7.
Contact Ariana Rollins at arianar ‘at’ stanford.edu.