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September 25, 2009

Utah vs Louisville

Utah (2-1) returns to Salt Lake City for a badly needed home game. It is Homecoming week up on the Hill, so there will be a packed house and raucous crowd on hand to welcome the Lousiville Cardinals (1-1) into Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Louisville is coming off a tough 31-27 loss to rival Kentucky. Kentucky scored a touchdown with just over four minutes left to take the lead and held on for the win. Louisville's win this season came in week one against Indiana State from the Football Championship Subdivision.

Utah returns home licking their wounds after having their 16-game winning streak broken by Oregon 31-24. The Utes had several chances to tie the ballgame late, but couldn't take advantage of their opportunities on offense. The defense not being able to stop the run didn't help the Utes quest to extend their winning streak to 17 games as the Ducks ran for 217 yards. Utah has never lost to Louisville, winning all three previous games in the series, and Kyle Whittingham has never lost a game to Steve Kragthorpe. This is the Utes final non-conference game and only home game until mid-October, as the Utes have a bye week next week followed by road games at Colorado State and UNLV. "I think the guys need to understand that when we have a setback, we have to come back with resolve and determination," Whittingham said about the program's first loss in almost 23 months. "I don't want to say we took winning for granted, but a lot of guys in the program haven't experienced a loss yet. I hope it opens some eyes on how hard it is to win a Division I football game and come back with more resolve, focus and determination. We weren't unfocused, but it's obvious we came up short and we have to come back with a better effort. This is not a time to panic. We have nine games left and one more non-conference game before a week off".

Here's a look inside the matchups and players to watch:

Utah Run Offense vs Louisville Run Defense
After a good start to the season, Utah's running game bogged down against Oregon. Quarterback Terrance Cain led the Utes in rushing against the Ducks, followed by a banged up Matt Asiata. Asiata's shoulder will not be 100% against Louisville, and Sausan Shakerin is out. Eddie Wide might not be 100%, either, as he has had a quad or hamstring wrapped in practices for well over a week though nothing has been said officially. That leaves the Utah backfield perilously thin, with Ray Stowers and true freshman Beau Burton the only other available backs on the roster. Asiata ran well for the most part against the Ducks and is clearly healthier than he was before the game, but there has to be some doubt as to how much contact he can take with his shoulder injury. Utah's offensive line did not do a good job opening holes for the backs last week and will need to do better. Zane Beadles needs to set the tone for his younger line. Utah's three new linemen combined for a 69% grade and one pancake against the Ducks.

Louisville's run defense looks great on paper, giving up well below 100 yards per game, but the stats are skewed by their opening game against Indiana State. Louisville gave up 168 yards rushing last week to Kentucky. Louisville's line is not very big or fast, and can be run on effectively up the middle. Linebacker Brandon Heath is a talented player as is leading tackler Jon Dempsey.

Louisville Run Offense vs Utah Run Defense
Sophomore running back Victor Anderson is a special player. The reigning Big East Rookie of the Year ran for 1,047 yards and 8 touchdowns a year ago and is well on his way to improving on those numbers in 2009. Anderson has 203 yards and 3 touchdowns in two games, accounting for two-thirds of the Cardinals rushing yards. Anderson is coming off his sixth career 100-yard rushing game against Kentucky. Despite weighing in at just 190 pounds, Anderson has surprising power to go along with his breakaway speed and change-of-direction ability. Anderson is the Cardinals rushing offense, though Bilal Powell will take a few carries from him.

Utah's run defense had a horrible game against Oregon, and everyone is to blame. The line could not stop the run up the middle while the linebackers and safeties could not contain Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. Adding insult to injury, at one point Oregon ran the ball 20 consecutive plays. Utah's front seven has struggled stopping the run this year and must improve dramatically this week. Linebackers Stevenson Sylvester, Mike Wright, and Kepa Gaison have not played to their talent level in any game this season, and their aggressive over-pursuit of plays has allowed several big runs up the middle.

Utah Pass Offense vs Louisville Pass Defense
>Now is the time for Utah to start expanding the passing game to involve more receivers and attack multiple levels of the defense. Aiona Key has been the forgotten starter at receiver, catching just two passes on the season. The 6-foot-4 athlete does have problems with route running and catching passes, but it is time to see if he can be counted in game situations. Shaky Smithson is starting to establish himself as another playmaker and could force Key to the bench sooner than later, despite Key's value as a blocker in the running game. Cain did not have a good game passing the ball in poor weather at Oregon and needs to get back on track against a Louisville secondary that will gamble at times. Asiata has been a reliable check-down option for Cain, though some of that might be by design. With Asiata's shoulder injury, keeping him in for pass protection and cutting linemen or linebackers might not be the best idea.

Louisville has been solid to this point in pass coverage, but that is due to competition as well as talent; Kentucky was conservative to a fault in their passing game while Indiana State was just in over their heads. Johnny Patrick has an interception in both games and is a solid cover corner. Patrick, Bobby Burns and Anthony Conner will guess and jump routes at times, leaving them vulnerable to big plays down the field. Terence Simien is better in the box than in man coverage while free safety Chaz Thompson is an average cover man.

Louisville Pass Offense vs Utah Pass Defense
Quarterback Justin Burke is a big, strong-armed passer who is young, inexperienced, and somewhat erratic. Burke is completing just 54% of his passes and has three interceptions to two touchdowns on the season. Kentucky did get to and sack Burke twice and pass protection has been an issue at Louisville in the past. Anderson is not an experience pass catcher out of the backfield but can be an effective receiver. Louisville is thin at receiver, really only going three deep. Scott Long is the leading receiver and a solid receiver. Doug Beaumont is the other starter and is a good route runner with good hands. Trent Guy is the big play threat and had a 66-yard touchdown catch against Kentucky. Tight end Cameron Graham is a very good tight end with good size, speed, and hands.

No one is quite sure what to make of Utah's pass defense except for one thing: the pass rush is not good. Utah's defensive line needs to do a better job of getting to the quarterback and being disruptive in general. Utah does have four sacks through three games, but two have come from the secondary. Koa Misi, Derrick Shelby, and Nai Fotu need to provide a better pass rush from the edge and have not performed to expectations. In the secondary, Brandon Burton has been solid and looks to be a fine cornerback in the making. Joe Dale has played to expectations. The rest of the secondary has fallen short at times and needs to play better.

Special Teams
Lousiville is solid on special teams, with a decent place kicker in Ryan Payne and an average at best punter in Cory Goettsche. Payne has hit on five of his seven field goal attempts, but both misses have been from under 40 yards. Goettsche is only averaging 37 yards per punt, but the flip side of that is Louisville has been excellent on punt coverage since so few punts are returnable. Louisville is a bad kick coverage team, giving up over 30 yards per kick return. Where Louisville really shines is in the return game with Guy. The speedster has four career return touchdowns, two kicks and two punts. In two games this season Guy already has shown his big play ability with a 31-yard punt return and a 65-yard kick return. With Utah's poor coverage a week ago, any breakdowns could result in six quick points for Louisville.

Utah has special teams issues of their own. The kicking game is still unsettled with Joe Phillips handling place kicking duties for the time being. Sean Sellwood has been a good punter but can do better. Utah's coverage units have been solid as has kick returns. Luke Matthews has injected some life into a stale punt return unit and his 12.25 average per return is good enough to tie for 22nd nationally and second in the MWC. Smithson will be getting more work as a kick return man and paired with David Reed could provide some excitement against a poor Louisville coverage squad.

Kragthorpe has to be feeling pressure, at least from the fanbase, despite repeated assurances from the administration that he will be back in 2010. Kragthorpe is just 12-14 in his third year at the helm after inheriting a program on the rise, and 3-8 on the road. Utah knows the Louisville staff well, as Whittingham and Kragthorpe have been friends for years, and new Cardinals defensive coordinator Brent Guy coached at Utah State before taking the job at Louisville.

Utah needs to step up their play on both sides of the ball, and that falls on the players and coaches alike. Utah's offense has been overly conservative and times and could really use a big game in front of the home crowd to generate momentum heading into the bye week. Dave Schramm has the attitude and intelligence to open things up but might be holding Cain to a tighter leash than expected at this point in the season. Kalani Sitake has not done much to help his line out when it comes to putting pressure on the quarterback, but he, too, might feel handcuffed by inexperience in the secondary. Still, it is time to find out if the kids can play, and there is no better time than at home before the bye.

Guy is the playmaking wildcard for Louisville, with his deep threat in the receiving game and his playmaking ability as a return man on special teams. Guy is a joy to watch, as fast and fluid an athlete as one will see. Yet despite his obvious talent, Guy has yet to break out as a receiver, catching just 28 passes and four touchdowns in his career, and has just three catches so far this season. Put in perspective, Guy has as many special teams touchdowns as offensive touchdowns at Louisville.

Utah's interior defense needs to step up and play to the level they are capable of. Kenape Eliapo, Lei Talamaivao, Wright and Sylvester have not shown much in the way of stopping the run. If there was a game when the middle of the Utah defense needed to step up and play well, this is it. Eliapo, Talamaivao, and Sealver Siliga especially need to do a better job. Utah's defensive tackles have not been able to keep offensive linemen from getting to the second level and opening huge holes for the running backs. Should Utah's tackles step up and control the middle, Utah's defense will not only look better against the run, but will play much better against the pass as well.

This should be a blowout for the Utes; they are the better team, they will be at home, and they have something to prove. That being said, the team and specifically the offense is not ready to roll up on anyone. The Utes will prevail but the game will have an uncomfortable feel for Ute fans until well into the fourth quarter.

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