Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl preview: Utah vs. Colorado State
It's been a roller coaster ride for Utah football fans this season. Between quarterback changes, wild overtime victories and tough defeats to high-profile opponents, the No. 22 Utes packed a lot of action in to their dozen contests so far.
For its season finale, Utah (8-4) will travel to Sin City for a matchup with Colorado State (10-2) in the 2014 Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday (12:30 p.m. PT, ABC). The Utes should have some nice support from their fans, as the school announced earlier this week that it has sold out its 7,500-ticket allotment for the game.
Let's take a look at some of the key storylines and players heading into Saturday's Sin City showdown.
Outlook: Beat-up Utes try to finish on a high note
Utah has been battling a series of injuries this season and will be without two of its top offensive weapons against CSU. Both wide receiver Dres Anderson and quarterback Kendal Thompson have suffered respective season-ending knee injuries earlier this year and will be spectating from the sidelines./p>
Thompson's injury has cleared up the muddled situation under center for Utah, where he and Travis Wilson split snaps this season. Wilson has had a penchant for making big plays at big moments throughout his career, but has also been inconsistent. He enters Saturday's contest with 2,012 passing yards, 17 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 60.3 percent completion percentage this year.
But there is some good news to report on Utah's injury front. Defensive end Hunter Dimick (52 tackles, 10 sacks, 14.5 tackles-for-loss) is expected to play after sitting out the season finale with an undisclosed injury he suffered on Nov. 22 against Arizona. Adding Dimick to Utah's menacing defensive front should be a huge boost in trying to corrall CSU's explosive offense, which averaged 35.9 points and 498 yards per game.
It will be interesting to see how the Utes attack the Rams, who will be led by interim coach and offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin. After turning around the once-lowly CSU football program and guiding the Rams to consecutive bowl games, Jim McElwain has left Fort Collins to become Florida's next head coach.
"We won't do anything differently," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of his team's approach. "And I'm sure they're not going to change much offensively and defensively. They're going to continue to do the things they've done."
Meanwhile, the Utes recently told Matthew Piper of the Salt Lake Tribune that they aren't paying attention to the coaching rumors swirling around Whittingham and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake.
UTAH PLAYERS TO WATCH
RB Devontae Booker (1,350 rushing yards, nine TDs)
Devontae Booker might not have garnered a lot of time in the Pac-12 limelight this year, but that doesn't take away from the stellar season he put together. Aside from his ability to pick up tough yards between the tackles, Booker has shown great skills as a pass receiver out the backfield. In addition to his 1,350 rushing yards, which ranked second in the Pac-12, Booker hauled in 39 catches for 282 yards this season.
DE Nate Orchard (80 tackles, 17.5 sacks, 20 tackles-for-loss)
The CSU offensive line will have to be on high alert for the big guy in the No. 8 jersey, Nate Orchard, who won the Ted Hendricks Award last week as college football's top defensive end. Orchard led the NCAA with his 1.46 sack-per-game average this year and his skills will be needed against a Rams offense that loves to drop back and pass. But Orchard has also done a fine job of setting the edge against the rush, and trying to contain CSU's run game will be no easy task.
WR/KR Kaelin Clay (39 catches, 460 receiving yards, four TDs, four return TDs)
The Utes boast one of the nation's top special teams units, and much of that acclaim belongs to Kaelin Clay. Though he's perhaps best remembered for this forgettable fumble at his own 1-yard line, Clay has returned three punts to the house and another kickoff this year. With Anderson, the team's top receiver, out of action, Clay has to establish himself as a threat in the passing game as well.
CSU PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Garrett Grayson (3,779 passing yards, 32 passing TDs, six INTs)
After going though the gauntlet of Pac-12 quarterbacks, the Utes are used to facing elite signal-callers. Saturday will be no different, as CSU quarterback Garrett Grayson racked up 3,779 passing yards this season, good for sixth-best in the nation. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior is a traditional passer who doesn't leave the pocket much, but he's been accurate with a 64.8 percent completion rate this year.
WR Rashard Higgins (89 receptions, 1,640 yards, 17 TDs)
No receiver in college football found the end zone more often that Rashard Higgins this season. Listed at 6-foot-2, 188 pounds, Higgins usually relies on his speed to break off big plays, but he's also got some sneaky strength to his wiry frame. Add that to a player who does a great job of making tough catches in coverage in the red zone, and you can see why Higgins has become Grayson's favorite target.
RB Dee Hart (1,254 rushing yards, 16 TDs)
The Rams may be a pass-first offense, but don't forget about the rushing attack. Dee Hart is a shifty redshirt junior running back who has made a huge impact for the Rams this season after graduating from Alabama. While Hart could never get much playing time in Tuscaloosa, he's proven to be a workhorse for the CSU offense this year, piling up 10 rushing touchdowns his past four games.
STATS TO KNOW
- (52) Utah's defense led the nation with 52 sacks this season
- (35.9) Colorado State's scoring average this season, which was good for 22nd best in the country
- (47.0) Utah's Tom Hackett won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter after averaging 47 yards per punt this season
- (17) CSU receiver Rashard Higgins has 17 receiving touchdowns this season, the most of any player in the nation