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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Utah

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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What’s Changed. The Utes were pretty good at getting pressure last year, finishing second in the Mountain West in sacks and tackles for loss and occasionally dominating MWC games –– in fact, a more algebraically-minded person could probably write up a formula expressing the relationship between Utah sacks and victory, which was fairly explicit:

In 9 Wins: 33 Sacks
In 4 Losses: 4 Sacks

You can express it in points scored, too: when the Utes got to the quarterback more than once (seven games), opponents averaged 11.6 points and went 0-7; when they only got there once (six games -- they weren’t shut out), opponents averaged 23 points and won four out of six. So pressure was a big deal, and played a major role in helping the defense to finish first nationally in pass efficiency D and fifth in points allowed. And, though the secondary effectively returns five starters, the top pass rushers, Martail Bennett Burnett and Gabe Long, are gone, as are three fifth-year seniors who started most of the games at linebacker and Steve Tate, who led the team in tackles by a mile two years in a row and made a specialty of hitting backs behind the line (10.5 TFL) despite his official designation as a safety. Bennett Burnett had 25.5 tackles for loss in two years and was the only player on the team besides the punter to make first team all-MWC; he has no heir apparent, though Koa Misi and Paul Kruger were about as productive as Long in the middle.

The least you should know about Utah...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 9-4 (5-3 Mtn. West; T-3rd)
2003-07: 46-16 (27-11 Mtn. West)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 61 • 59 • 55 • 71 • 60
Returning Starters, Roughly
13 (7 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
Darrell Mack is one of those very few athletes for whom punishing his body hour after hour, month after month, year after year is the easy part of existence. Mack’s horrible life story made the rounds before the Poinsettia Bowl in December: his drug-addicted mother was murdered with a lug wrench when he was 8; his dad is in prison for killing a woman with 43 stab wounds when Mack was 15; he missed much of his early education and has dyslexia; and his grandfather died of cancer a week before the game. That quarter-lifetime of pent-up rage found a willing target in opposing defenses, which Mack ripped for 100-plus yards in eight of his first nine starts and 1,200 for the season, the best returning number in the conference.
This Week In Horrifying But Calculatedly PC Cartoon Mascots
Utah does its controversial Indian nickname right: with both official and tacit approval of the Ute Tribal Council, which doesn’t give a damn since the school wisely dropped "Redskins" in 1972, that moniker representing an epithet so blatantly offensive to all modern, progressive minds that no school or professional franchise would dream of holding onto it today. *cough* Just to be sure, though, the school had help from the Utes designing a new mascot in 1996, the result of which was the truly disturbing "Swoop," aka "Swallows A Thousand Bugs." Swoop is supposed to represent an eagle, a sacred symbol to the tribe, but the effect is closer to a rejected prototpye from Jurassic Park 6: The Raptor Had Feathers!. Spielberg appreciates the homage, I'm sure.
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* According to Rivals.

The Utes have no prior history of being exceptionally good in the pass rush or against the pass, generally, and are guaranteed to drop from the perch in the latter case, although not necessarily far -- as experienced and deep as Utah is in the back four, and this being the quarterback-barren league it is, it may still lead the conference.

What’s the Same. Systematically, the offense is the same balanced, motion-heavy spread look installed by Urban Meyer, but far removed from its peak under his prolific guidance. The Utes’ scoring production fell from an unsustainable 45 points per game in 2004 -- the 13-0 season that vaulted Meyer to millions in Florida and (for its greatest trick) Alex Smith to the top of the NFL Draft -- to 30 points per game in 2005, 28 in 2006 and 26 last year. Total yardage has followed, down almost 25 percent the last two years from big gains in 2004-05.

The trend, though, is as unreliable as Brian Johnson’s health, and in some sense directly correlated. In 2005, he obliterated Smith's sophomore production by accounting for almost 3,400 total yards and 26 touchdowns in ten games, before a knee injury ended his season and carried over into a redshirt in ‘06. Healthy again, Johnson was a near-unanimous all-Mountain West pick last summer, until he went down in the opener at Oregon State. The Utes proceeded to lose that game and three of their first four, scoring a meager 12 points against Air Force and being shut out, inexplicably, with Johnson at less than full speed at bottom-dwelling UNLV (even more inexplicable was the intervening 44-6 blitz of UCLA, the only win in a string of bumbling September losses -- but, you know...UCLA. The Dorell-era Bruins and ‘inexplicable’ are like peas and carrots). Sitting at 1-3, on the brink of disaster, Johnson’s full-time return to the lineup sparked seven straight wins, including fairly huge games against Louisville, San Diego State, Colorado State and Wyoming (Utah outscored the latter three 100 to 10 in a four-week span), a close call against reigning MWC overlord BYU and the Utes’ fifth straight bowl win, another offensively-driven show over Navy.

Still, with the "who" and "how" down, personnel-wise, there’s the matter of execution. Johnson looks like the X-factor, but his junior numbers were a real regression from his sophomore form, especially his meh 11:10 touchdown:interception ratio.

I would not want to venture the impact of Johnson’s injury problems on his mobility, which clearly was not last year what it was in ‘05, but he looked plenty mobile in the only game I saw him play, the Poinsettia Bowl, and this was in fact easily his best rushing game of the season (67 yards on 11 carries, almost twice his total in any other game, and one impressive touchdown). The Ute offense hummed: 451 yards, 35 points. Some of that was playing the athletically challenged Midshipmen, and he was also pulled sporadically for "more athletic" freshman Corbin Louks (who did not appear more athletic in this game) to run draws directly into the teeth of a not-at-all-surprised defense, but if a month off meant that much to Johnson’s ability to run the entire offense, the numbers after an entire offseason to heal from shoulder surgery should gravitate toward 2004-05 levels –– that is, assuming he gets past the first game for a change.

Johnson: Fine, as long as nobody touches him.
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Oh, Fragility. This team was really the walking wounded most of the season, especially on offense: even before losing the starting quarterback in the first game, the Utes had lost their their best lineman, tackle Jason Boone, during practice in August, and quickly bid adieu to top tailback/USC transfer Matt Asiata [the erroneous SC reference was due to confusion with ex-Trojan (and now ex-Ute) Darryl Poston, who also began high on last year's depth chart but only significantly contributed in one game. Blame Phil Steele's microscopic type – ed.] four carries into the season and starting receiver Brent Casteel to an ACL injury early in the second game. None played another down for the rest of the year (although, in Asiata’s case, that turned out okay, due to the emergence of Darrell Mack). No wonder it took a month to get on track -- minus Boone and Casteel and with an often gimpy Johnson, they weren’t really running at full speed until November, if they got there at all.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Well, there were no major injuries, not counting the unfortunate New Year’s of Paul Kruger -- and not much chance for any, since Johnson was in "limited" mode post-surgery, which allegedly left him struggling with his accuracy and arm strength on deep throws. Louks seemed to play well in early scrimmages but wound up suffering a concussion and sitting out the spring game, too, and so didn’t gain any ground; it looks like Johnson’s recuperation will be the cloud hanging over the team well into the fall.

Casteel and Asiata also sat out the final scrimmage, along with four other starters, though Asiata’s name pops up a few places as a strong candidate to push Darrell Mack for the carries he missed out on last year (surprise -- Mack didn’t play, either). They’ll both have to hold off Eddie Wide, who impressed and supposedly offers the relative "lightning" to the thunder-like plodding of his more celebrated peers.

Utah on You Tube. A speechless Jim Fassel in the best win he’d ever been associated with, a giddy, personable Scott Mitchell in his first college start, and one lucky, disgusting penny star in the Utes’ showdown with BYU in 1988:

Fassel was 25-33 at Utah and finished in the bottom half of the WAC his last four years, including ‘88s. Whatever happend to that clueless, dead end bum?

See Also: True to their word, Ute fans sing the Cougar fight song at BYU law school. ... A seven-year-old does his best Brian Johnson impersonation in the snow. ... Apparently this is some sort of new tradition. ... The Utah Pirate and Sprinkles the Bear on BYU’s spelling abilities. ... And the University of Utah speaks its piece on al-Jazeera.

Best-Case: If Johnson is healthy and able to put any pressure on the secondary, there’s a great opportunity to set the tone for high expectations at Michigan in the opener, a game a lot of people (too many, it seems) have pegged as a likely Ute "upset," to the extent the term applies when the Wolverines will opening with as many questions as they have. The defense has to be able to hold up against whatever remains of UM’s straight-ahead, power running game and force the new quarterback and receivers to make plays in predictable situations, to give the Ute offense a chance against the still-menacing Michigan D in a low-scoring game. If it can get away with that, Utah has a great chance to win at Air Force, take a couple cupcake games with Utah State, Weber State and, yes, UNLV, last year’s bizarre score not withstanding, and be 5-0 when Oregon State comes into Salt Lake the first weekend in October. I won’t give them the Wolverines and Beavers (one Northern woodland mammal is enough for a single season, especially remembering last year’s lopsided loss at OSU), but I will say the Utes could be 8-1 with two key home games for the conference title in the last three. It seems unlikely they’ll drop both TCU and BYU, but another split in those games could leave the final mark at 10-2; if the win is the right one, that should be good enough for the MWC championship and a top 25 bid –– call this route the "Phil Steele Conjecture."

Whittingham: No championships yet, but you can’t fault his, uh, enthusiasm.
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Worst-Case: Johnson’s endured two years of injury fatigue and still wasn’t 100 percent in the spring. As last year proved, that is bad, bad news for a tough road opener, and with Air Force showing signs of life, the record could just as soon be 3-3 at the midway point as 5-1. The other potentially dangerous MWC game down the stretch, just before the critical TCU and BYU showdowns is New Mexico; the Utes could drop two of those three, or all three, for that matter, and even the long lost Rocky Mountain Bowl wouldn’t want them at 6-6.

Non-Binding Forecast: A Southwestern Desert Christmas or Bust. All things considered, I’m willing to take the Utes to scare Michigan, but, post-Appalachian State, not quite pull that level of upset if there are any questions about Johnson’s shoulder -- and it appears there certainly will be. The main goal will be to be sitting at 5-0 entering the TCU-BYU gambit at year’s end; the way Kyle Whittingham’s first three seasons have played out, there’s a very likely loss somewhere in the trips to Air Force, Wyoming and/or New Mexico, and another to the Horned Frogs or Cougars. It will take a very special effort from Johnson to lift the offense to a conference championship level, but given the lingering injury questions and BYU’s ongoing hold on the conference, another round of 8-4 (maybe 9-3, depending on the Oregon State game, a true toss-up in Salt Lake) and another pleasant visit to the New Mexico or Poinsettia Bowl seems like the better bet.