Stanford and Utah are looking for bounce-back performances this week -- though under different circumstances. For Utah, which has lost both of its games by a narrow margin, a victory over No. 5 Stanford would serve as a signature announcement to the rest of the league that it has arrived.
The Cardinal -- still perfect on the season -- are simply looking to shore up some offensive inconsistencies that plagued them at home Saturday against a very good Washington defense. Stanford posted season lows in total yards (279), rushing yards (179), yards per carry (4.4) and passing yards (100). Quarterback Kevin Hogan, who has thrown one interception in four straight games, was also sacked twice and posted the lowest passing total and completion percentage since becoming a starter last season.
“Coming off a game where we ran it and threw it and blocked it extremely well against Washington State, we were not up to par in this game,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “We missed opportunities throwing the ball to guys [who] were open. We didn’t make enough plays. Our pass protection wasn’t bad, but they are a good group, and if you don’t throw the ball on time, they are going to get to you.”
Turnovers were what plagued the Utes in their 34-27 loss to UCLA last Thursday. The final stat book reads six interceptions for quarterback Travis Wilson – though that’s not an accurate account of how things went down. Besides the fact that Wilson was sick in bed all day with flu-like symptoms leading up to the game, there were issues with drops, deflections and protection breakdowns that contributed to the turnovers.
“He’s a resilient kid. He’s confident,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of his quarterback. “When you break them down, deflected balls, a route structure that was incorrect, getting hit just as he released the ball. If it was six bad decisions and six bad throws, that would be a big problem. But that wasn’t the case and our guess is that he’s going to bounce back and play well … a lot of blame to go around for six interceptions.”
This marks the first meeting between Utah and Stanford as Pac-12 members and the first showdown between the schools since 1996. The Utes are 0-1 against the Pac-12 North this season (falling to Oregon State 51-48 in overtime last month) and 4-5 overall against North teams. Since joining the league, Utah is yet to beat a conference member ranked in the Top 25.
“Stanford’s front seven is extremely physical,” said Whittingham, whose Utes are playing a top-15 team for the second straight week. “In my estimation they are the most physical team in the Pac-12. But we feel like we’re pretty good at the line of scrimmage as well on both sides of the ball so we’ll see how we match up.
“It’s week in and week out. There are no weeks off in this conference. We’ve got some big challenges down the road. We understand that, that’s part of the deal. There’s nowhere else we’d rather be than in the Pac-12 competing and trying to get better.”
Shaw said he sees the potential in Wilson. Prior to the UCLA game, he had thrown nine touchdowns to just three interceptions while adding five more touchdowns on the ground. Shaw has seen plenty of film of Wilson because he was high school teammates with Stanford offensive lineman Kyle Murphy. So he knows what Wilson is capable of when he’s at his best.
“Offensively, when they don’t turn the ball over, they are very dangerous,” Shaw said. “I saw him play in high school. The guy can stand in the pocket and see over everybody and [can] make all of the throws. They are a very, very dangerous football team.”
The Utes will likely be without tight end Jake Murphy for the rest of the season after he had surgery on his broken wrist. That means more Utes will have to step up in the passing game. Plus, in their past two games, the Utes are just 3 of 27 on third down -- a problem they need to correct against an aggressive Stanford front.
“The biggest issue is there have been too many third-and-longs in those third downs, which means we've got to be better on first and second down at getting ourselves in third and manageable instead of third and nine-plus,” Whittingham said. “That's the first step. That's been a huge point of our focus of the last three days is to try to remedy that.”