No. 16 Utah (8-1, 5-0 MWC) travels to Texas to take on the No. 4 team in the country, the TCU Horned Frogs (9-0, 5-0) in arguably the biggest game in Mountain West Conference history.
ESPN College Gameday will be in Fort Worth to kick off the festivities and for the second time this season TCU will be in the bright national spotlight. TCU fields an extremely balanced team, ranked near the top of the conference in every statistical category be it on offense, defense, or special teams. The Frogs are coming off a 55-12 beat down of San Diego State and have won 11 consecutive games since losing to Utah 13-10 last season in Salt Lake City.
The Utes are coming off a dominating win of their own, blowing out New Mexico 45-14 in a game that wasn't even that close. Utah broke in a new starting quarterback, playing true freshman Jordan Wynn in his first career start. Wynn responded by leading the Utes to their best offensive showing of the season.
Here's a look inside the matchups and players to watch:
Utah Run Offense vs TCU Run Defense
Utah needs to get production out of the run game for three key reasons: To take responsibility of offensive production off of Wynn, to keep TCU's front six from pinning their ears back and rushing the passer without fear, and to keep Utah out of drive-killing third and long situations.
Eddie Wide continues his fantastic production since taking over as the feature back, producing a career day against New Mexico (145 yards, 2 touchdowns on the ground). Wide compares favorable to Clemson's C.J. Spiller, who ran for 135 yards on the Frogs earlier this season. The key to the running game will be the play of the offensive line; if they can prevent penetration and create some seams, Wide is good enough to hit those holes and turn a three yard gain into a 20 yard big play. Sausan Shakerin will need another productive game and can not give up the negative yardage plays he has had at times this season. Utah will also get creative in the running game, utilizing receivers DeVonte Christopher, Shaky Smithson, and Luke Matthews taking direct snaps in the Utah version of the popular "wildcat" offense. Utah does not need to match their season average of 187 yards per game, but getting at least 100 yards and four yards per carry will keep Utah's offense balanced and the defense off the field.
TCU's run defense is extremely tough, especially up the middle with tackles Kelly Griffin and Cory Grant clearing the way for linebackers Daryl Washington and Tank Carder. Washington is a fantastic play-making linebacker and Carder is a rock in the middle. Safety Alex Ibiloye plays like a linebacker in the run game and Utah will need to account for him with their blocking schemes. While TCU is not quite as good against the run as they were a year ago, the Frogs are still excellent against the run giving up just 89.7 yards per game at 2.9 yards per run.
TCU Run Offense vs Utah Run Defense
TCU is a terrific running team, piling up 242 yards per game on the ground. The challenge for opponents is TCU's balanced attack; eight different players have double-digit carries and each presents a slightly different running style. TCU also uses many schemes to run the ball; option, I-formation, single back, shotgun spread, "Wild Frog", to name a few. Utah has been solid the last four weeks stopping the run but will face a stiff test in the Frogs explosive running game.
Joseph Turner leads the Frogs rushing attack and is extremely good in short yardage and goal-to-go situations with his speed and power. Ed Wesley provides the lightning to Turner's thunder. Wesley is a gifted runner blessed with tremendous speed, quickness, and vision. Andy Dalton gets involved from the quarterback position with designed draws and on the option while Jeremy Kerley is dangerous taking direct snaps in the "Wild Frog"; Kerley played quarterback in high school and is a passing threat in that formation.
Utah will miss tackle Kenape Eliapo. Eliapo is fighting a mysterious illness that is affecting his vision and could miss the rest of the season. Dave Kruger, Sealver Siliga, and Lei Talamaivao must step up their game at the tackle spot despite playing well since the bye week. Utah's defensive ends and linebackers must play assignment football and not overpursue, something they have been guilty of in past games. Joe Dale is back to full strength after missing several games with a knee injury and will be vital to slowing down the run game from his safety spot.
Utah Pass Offense vs TCU Pass Defense
Wynn as provided a spark to the offense and put up the most yards by a Utah quarterback in a half and game this season against New Mexico with his 233 and 297 yards respectively. The problem is, TCU is not New Mexico. TCU is one of the best pass defenses in the country and has an outstanding pair of corners.
As with the running game, Utah's passing attack must start up front. Utah must protect Wynn from the ferocious TCU pass rush and force the Frogs to use more than four players to get to Wynn. Wynn can find and hit open targets and can make the Frogs pay if they blitz, he just needs the time to do so. Wynn can help himself out early by establishing himself as a running threat should the TCU line not stay sound in their rush lanes. Utah can also aid Wynn by throwing some running back screens to slow down the line and get Wynn into a comfort zone. David Reed and Jereme Brooks have been great lately, but Utah really needs a third receiver to step up. Matthews has been playing well lately and could be that guy. Also look for Kendrick Moeai to get more involved in the pass game as his size and speed would be a matchup issue for the Frogs.
Jerry Hughes gets the spotlight and he deserves it with his top-flight pass rushing ability, but Wayne Daniels is no slouch at right end. Daniels has 4.5 sacks and can create pressure on his own. TCU spreads the wealth around, as nine different Frogs have recorded sacks on the season. Nick Sanders and Rafael Priest might be the best corner tandem in the country. If TCU has a weakness, it is that their safeties can be beat when matched up in man coverage, but the pass rush has been so good from the front four that TCU has not had to isolate a safety and bring extra pressure. Look for Utah to find ways to create that mismatch.
TCU Pass Offense vs Utah Pass Defense
TCU's pass offense and Utah's pass defense are models of efficiency and should make for an entertaining battle to watch. TCU has great receivers with size and speed while Utah's corners have been playing excellent football as of late. This phase of the game could very well decide the outcome of the ballgame.
Dalton has been extremely consistent and efficient this season, completing 64% of his passes while throwing for 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Dalton is especially effective throwing off the play-action due to the TCU running game. Dalton has also learned to spread the ball around. Last season, Jimmy Young was clearly Dalton's favorite target and accounted for the vast majority of TCU's receptions, yards, and touchdowns in the passing game. This year, Young is third on the team in catches and six different Frogs have double-digit receptions, and none more than 29. Kerley has really come into his own as a receiver and leads the Frogs in catches. Antoine Hicks is a dangerous redzone target and leads the team with four touchdown catches. TCU does not utilize the tight end much, but they will leak them out on occasion.
Utah's pass defense is playing at a very high level and is one of the top pass defenses in the country. Corners Brandon Burton, R.J. Stanford, and Lamar Chapman have been blanketing receivers the last several games and breaking up a lot of passes. The best news for the Utes is that they are doing it without drawing pass interference flags, which flew at an alarming rate early in the season. Burton recorded his first career pick last week against New Mexico and has had his hands on several others this season. Expect TCU to attack outside the numbers as they will likely avoid the middle of the field, where Robert Johnson roams. Johnson is one of the premier free safeties in the country and has outstanding range, leaping ability, and hands. Johnson has five picks on the season and has two career interceptions off of Dalton, who has thrown six in two games against the Utes.
Kerley is a dangerous return man, leading the conference in both kick and punt returns, and has two touchdown on punt returns. After missing two field goals against the Utes last year, Ross Evans has been outstanding, hitting 11 of 12 field goals in 2009. Punter Anson Kelton is really the lone weak link, though TCU's coverage unit has been outstanding.
Ben Vroman should keep Kerley in-check on kickoffs and continues to put kicks in the endzone. Utah has had some breakdowns in kick coverage on the rare occasion a Vroman boot is returnable and will need to play flawless against Kerley. Sean Sellwood has been a little inconsistent as a punter but usually gets good height and distance on his punts. Utah did allow a punt return for a touchdown against Oregon but has been very good since. In the return game, Christopher has provided a spark on kick returns but has been a little disappointing as a punt returner, and could turn that job back over to Matthews who has been good when he holds onto the ball.
There really is no way to say either staff has an edge on the other, though Kyle Whittingham has only lost one game to Gary Patterson and the Frogs, back in 2005 - Whittingham's first season as a head coach. Utah has gone through some growing pains with a new staff, but bringing the fiery offensive coordinator Dave Schramm back down onto the field and replacing him in the booth with receivers coach Aaron Roderick has been a great success. Schramm injects some fire and urgency into the offense that has been lacking at times while providing instant coaching to Wynn on the sidelines. TCU's staff is rock solid from top to bottom and has the Frogs playing at a very high level.
Utah will need to account for Kerley on offense and in the return game. Kerley is a game breaker and game changer with the ball in his hands. Slowing down Kerley means forcing the TCU offense to methodically move the ball down field without the instant success of the big play. TCU can score points on 10+ play drives but would like to attack downfield and get Kerley in open space.
For Utah, the X-factor is Wynn. If he plays well, Utah's offense will be hard to stop and the running game will be effective. If Wynn plays like a freshman, turning the ball over, making bad reads, and running three play drives, Utah could find themselves buried quickly. Wynn is confident and seems to feed off of the pressure and spotlight, attributes he will need against the Frogs.
Despite the early lines, this game should follow the history of the series; a tight defensive battle that will come down to the wire. TCU is the better team and should have the best home atmosphere they have had in decades behind them. This will not be an easy win for the Frogs as the Utah defense keeps the game close and the offense finds just enough to keep the pressure on. The difference will be costly mistakes. Utah makes them, TCU does not.