Pac-12 Networks preview: Utah
This post is one in a series of 12 as we visit each Pac-12 school on the Pac-12 Networks Football Training Camp tour. Check Pac-12.com in advance of each school's Football Training Camp stop for a quick season preview ahead of that night's show.
You don’t mess with the MUSS (Mighty Utah Student Section). That’s what the Idaho State Bengals are about to find out when they open the season at Rice-Eccles Stadium on the Pac-12 Networks. After posting back-to-back 5-7 seasons, the Utah Utes are gearing up to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2011. Up until the last two seasons, head coach Kyle Whittingham had a habit of taking the Utes to bowl games and winning them: He was 6-1 in bowls in his first seven seasons as head coach and 7-1 when you include the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, when he was the interim coach. As Coach Whit enters his 10th season in Salt Lake City he’s hoping to turn it around, make the Utes a force in the Pac-12 South and get everyone in Utah jazzed (Do you see what I did there? Because the Utah Jazz?). Anywho, here we #GoUtes.
- On offense the Utes bring back six starters, including three offensive linemen (left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi, left guard Junior Salt, and center Siaosi Aiono), their leading rusher Bubba Poole and their leading receiver Dres Anderson. Perhaps the most important returner on the Utah offense is that of quarterback Travis Wilson. The junior QB suffered from a concussion last season which revealed a previous intracranial artery injury, putting his football career was in jeopardy. The 6-7 QB was cleared for contact this offseason, so he’ll look to lead the Utes once again. Utah and new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen are in desperate need for a high-level injury-free season from Wilson. That’s because the Utes have not had the same quarterback start and complete a season since Brian Johnson did so in 2008. If Wilson can start and finish the season, then the mascot Swoop will be psyched and drop it like it’s super hot.
- The Utes are known for their strong defense. This year their motto is “PSR,” which stands for “Physical, Smart and Relentless.” They will return five starters from a squad that ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in total defense and eighth in scoring defense a year ago. Utah will rely heavily on senior defensive end Nate Orchard to make up for the production and leadership lost with the graduation of linebacker and leading tackler Trevor Reilly. Linebackers Jason Whittingham and Jared Norris, second and fifth respectively in tackles in 2013, and Brian Blechen, who missed all of 2013 with a knee injury, will help the Utes continue their strong play on defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake’s squad.
- Utah will need to be more explosive on offense in 2014 after finishing 10th in scoring and 11th in total offense in 2013. Luckily for the Utes, they’ve got receiver Dres Anderson. Last year Dres tied for the most receptions of 50 yards or more in the nation with seven. Anderson also led the Pac-12 and was 12th in the country in yards per catch (18.91). He led Utah in every receiving category in 2013 including receptions (53), yards (1,002), yards per catch (18.91), touchdowns (7) and yards per game (83.5). WR Kenneth Scott will return after an ankle injury that sidelined him last year to provide a nice 1-2 punch on the outside.
- The Utes will have to traverse through a rough schedule in 2014. They have one of the most difficult non-conference schedules with games versus Fresno State and then going to “The Big House” in Ann Arbor, Michigan to take on the Michigan Wolverines. Then in conference play they’ll have to go on the road to face UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona State, Stanford and Colorado. Getting tough wins at those places will have the Utes bowling once again and will have them dancing in Salt Lake City.
Utah always has a great home field advantage when playing in front of the MUSS. How many consecutive sellouts have there been at Rice-Eccles Stadium entering the 2014 season?
Tweet me the answer @RyanMcGrady and I’ll say something like, “You got it! How great is the atmosphere at Rice-Eccles?”
(Credit: Utah Sports Information Department. Liz Abel, Mike DeVine, and Brooke Frederickson are awesome.)