Utah prepares to open their season against an FCS school for the second year in a row. Unlike the 2011 opener when Utah faced a quality Montana State squad, simply put Northern Colordao is not a good football team. The Bears from Greeley are small, lack athleticism, and are struggling to adapt to life as an FCS football program after moving up from Division II ball in 2006. Thursday's season opener should be little more than a warm-up for a Utah team that is looking to compete for the Pac-12 South division crown.
Northern Colorado did not win a game in 2011 under first-year head coach Earnest Collins, Jr., and were rarely competitive, losing eight of their 11 games by 10 or more points, and five by 20 or more. The Bears struggled in all three phases of the game and do not look to be much better in 2012, though some incoming transfers are expected to help a defense that allowed nearly 35 points per game. There are a few good players for the Bears, and they could make the game interesting early on should the Utes enter the game believing they will win easily just by walking out the tunnel.
Utah experienced plenty of growing pains in their first season in the Pac-12. A slow start to the conference season plus a shocking loss to a poor Colorado team derailed any hopes of representing the South in the first Pac-12 title game. Utah did go 4-0 in non-conference play, including a win over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Brian Johnson becomes Utah's fifth offensive coordinator in the past four years (Andy Ludwig in 2009, Dave Schramm and Aaron Roderick in 2010, Norm Chow in 2011), taking over play-calling duties as the youngest coordinator in FBS football. Utah's offense has struggled at times with all the changes at coordinator, and getting the offense going against a poor UNC defense might give the group the confidence they need to start the season strong.
Northern Colorado Run Offense vs Utah Run Defense
To say Northern Colorado struggled running the ball would be a serious understatement. The Bears offensive line couldn't open many holes, and those few that did open up the running backs could not find. Former Colorado walk-on Quentin Hildreth led the Bears in rushing in 2011, picking up just 388 yards on 116 carries despite playing in nine games. Hildreth is quick, but has not shown good vision or the ability to break arm tackles at the line of scrimmage. Backup Robert Holland had just nine carries a year ago. Quarterback Seth Lobato was second on the team with 89 carries, though he gained just 57 yards. Lobato is willing to pull the ball down and run, but he is not a natural runner nor does he possess great athletic ability. Lobato had issues protecting the ball a year ago, fumbling 10 times. The offensive line does return four starters, though two of the four are playing new positions in 2012. As a unit, the Bears offensive line allowed the team to run for a miniscule 2.2 yards per carry
Utah's run defense is among the best in the nation. The Utes allowed just 114 yards a game at 3.3 yards per carry a year ago, both good for 20th nationally. Utah's front could be even better this year against the run. Star Lotulelei leads the attack, as he commands and beats double-teams on a regular basis. Teams simply ran away from Lotulelei as the season wore on. Dave Kruger is back alongside Lotulelei, and is bigger and stronger than he has been at Utah. After a solid 2010, Kruger appeared to regress a bit in 2011, and is looking to finish his career at Utah on a high note. Utah is breaking in two new linebackers in V.J. Fehoko and either Jared Norris or LT Filiaga. Even with a pair of new inside linebackers, Utah should be fine in the middle against the run, as Lotulelei and Kruger require the offensive line's focus. The key for Utah this year against the run will be the play of the defensive ends. Joe Kruger is solid against the run, but Nate Fakahafua and LB/DE Trevor Reilly are on the small side and have not been tested much holding the edge in running situations as they saw most of their time last year on passing downs. They will be on the spot immediately, as Northern Colorado does run some option out of their shotgun spread attack.
Utah Run Offense vs Northern Colorado Run Defense
John White returns for Utah after setting single-season school records in carries (316), yards (1,519), and touchdowns (15). White had a fantastic season a year ago as essentially Utah's only offensive weapon, and could be better this year with a more complete offense around him. While White is a known commodity, his backups are not. Jarrell Oliver had a strong fall camp to take over the top backup spot, but he and fellow backup Kelvin York do not have an FBS carry to their names. Both should see plenty of action Thursday night. Oliver is a short, powerful back who runs very low to the ground and is difficult to bring down on initial contact. York is bigger and has better speed than Oliver, but tends to run more upright. Utah's offensive line could be an issue for the running game, as Utah is breaking in two new offensive tackles and the line had issues in the running game a year ago. Miles Mason is expected to take over at left tackle after spending most of the 2011 season at left guard, while Percy Taumoelau gets the nod at right tackle. Utah will need those two to play well from the start, and for the interior of Jeremiah Tofaeono, Tevita Stevens, and Sam Brenner to play better than they did last season.
Northern Colorado's run defense was poor, to put it nicely. The Bears allowed teams to run for 170 yards a game and 3.9 yards per carry last season. They also gave up 20 rushing touchdowns. They are small up front, and despite their lack of size they are not especially quick. The Bears front four struggle defeating blocks, allowing opposing blockers easy access to the second level of the defense. Their best defensive lineman, end Davontae Chapple, was moved inside to tackle this season, and could have a hard time going up against better interior linemen. The stars of the Bears defense are all linebackers. Clarence Bumpas is the leader of the defense and a good player. Bumpas recorded an astonishing 145 tackles in 11 games last season. Bumpas is also solid against the pass. Fellow linebacker Cameron Friend recorded 93 tackles himself, while leading the defense with three interceptions. Joining them this year is Central Florida transfer Leilon Willingham. Willingham might be the most talented of the three and is expected to make an impact at the strongside linebacker position. Keep an eye on safety/corner Marcel Gibbons. In a testament to how poor the front was a season ago, the defensive back was third on the team with 90 tackles. The Bears do like to play Gibbons around the line of scrimmage and send him as an extra man providing pressure, as the led the team with 12 tackles for loss and finished second with three sacks.
Northern Colorado Pass Offense vs Utah Pass Defense
Northern Colorado likes to pass. At least, they did in 2011. The Bears threw the ball 65% of the time a year ago, 444 times. UNC spread the field a lot, using four or five receiver sets and letting loose. Circumstances played a role in that as they were trailing early and often in games. Quantity did not equal quality, as the Bears were very inefficient throwing the football. Completing 53% of their passes while throwing 12 interceptions to just 18 touchdowns, Northern Colorado just could not move the ball well on offense. Lobato returns after struggling as a sophomore. The Colorado transfer completed just 54.5% of his passes for 2,448 yards and 17 touchdowns. Lobato also threw 10 interceptions, and as previously mentioned fumbled the ball 10 times, losing five. It is hard to place much blame on Lobato, though, as he was under pressure seemingly every time he took a snap. The Bears offensive line allowed 35 sacks, and according to the stats, 32 hurries. Lobato will force the ball into coverage and does not make great. When given time, he can be accurate and does have some good receivers to throw the ball to. Jace Davis is the best of those receivers, even after missing the 2011 season for academic reasons. Davis has good size (6-foot, 209 pounds), and very good speed. In 2010 Davis was one of the best receivers in the Big Sky conference, hauling in 53 passes for 992 yards and seven touchdowns. Dominic Gunn is a better return man than receiver, but he can be a threat in space, and the Bears try to do that using him on screens and other quick passes. Dimitri Stimphil is their deep threat, and he can get past single coverage down field. Chris Morris is the possession receiver, a reliable target who is not afraid of contact. The Bears do not use their tight ends or backs much in the passing game.
Utah's pass defense epitomized "bend but don't break" a year ago. The Utes gave up a lot of yards through the air, but not a lot of points. Utah also took the ball away often, recording 19 interceptions. Utah's secondary appears solid on paper, returning quite a bit of experience. Mo Lee is expected to have a big year at corner. The former JC receiver recorded three interceptions last season despite just three starts. Speedster Ryan Lacy has developed into a solid cover corner, and has been known to lay big hits on receivers. Lacy does like to jump routes and can be beaten by double moves. Safety Eric Rowe had a terrific season as a true freshman, earning several first team Freshman All-America honors, and has the size, speed, and instincts to become an outstanding safety. While the secondary is excellent, the pass rush needs improvement. Utah did record 30 sacks last year, though just 13.5 came from the defensive line. Nate Fakahafua has the tools to be a good edge rusher, and Joe Kruger continues to improve his pass rush. Linebacker Trevor Reilly will play defensive end in certain situations, and is the best pass rusher on the team.
Utah Pass Offense vs Northern Colorado Pass Defense
Utah's passing game never really had a chance to click a year ago. Just as quarterback Jordan Wynn was getting fully recovered from shoulder surgery, he suffered another serious injury and missed most of the season. Backup Jon Hays did not know the offense after a late transfer to Utah and lacked the physical tools to make up for being thrown into a bad situation. As a result, Utah threw for just 173 yards a game last season and finished among the worst passing offenses in the country in virtually every category. It was as good a manifestation of Murphy's Law that a football team could showcase; open receivers were not seen, passes were poorly thrown, and too many catchable passes were dropped. There is hope for this season. Wynn is fully healthy heading into the season. Hays knows the system and has looked better than at any point a year ago. And true freshman Travis Wilson has shown the potential to be an outstanding Pac-12 quarterback. When healthy, Wynn is a good quarterback capable of making the correct reads and delivering the ball accurately and on time. There is plenty of talent at the receiver positions, headlined by senior DeVonte Christopher. Christopher has led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns each of the past two seasons, and had a career game against USC a year ago, catching 11 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown. Dres Anderson had a solid showing as a freshman, catching 23 passes for 355 yards and three scores, though he dropped several passes. Luke Matthews is as consistent as ever, and is a reliable target and among the best blockers in college football. The tight end position will see passes thrown their way, with David Rolf, Jake Murphy, and Dallin Rogers all capable pass catchers.The question for the passing game will be the offensive line. The line gave up 33 sacks last season, though several of those can be attributed to Hays holding onto the football for far too long. Still, the line struggled in pass protection, and breaking in two new offensive tackles will not make life easy on Wynn. Miles Mason needs to step up and play well at left tackle, or Utah could be facing another season with Wynn out of the lineup.
Northern Colorado struggled defending the pass along with everything else. The Bears couldn't cover anyone and couldn't get pressure on the quarterback. Dave Chapple's previously mentioned move to tackle from end could allow the Bears to get better pressure up the middle, but the ends have not shown an ability to collapse the pocket. The linebackers are good at flowing to the ball and decent in zone coverage, but they do not have a natural feel for the blitz nor can they stay with backs or tight ends in man coverage. The secondary might be the worst unit on the team. They lack the size to match up with big receivers, and do not have the athleticism to stay in man coverage. Opponents completed over 68% of their passes against Northern Colorado. Marcel Gibbons is their best secondary player, and he is much better against the run than the pass.
Special teams play will take on a different role in 2012, thanks to NCAA rule changes. How the rule changes impact special teams play remains to be seen, but at first glance they appear significant.
Dominic Gunn is a very good kick returner, as he holds or is near to setting several Northern Colorado kick return records. Gunn has had lots of chances to return kicks as opponents score often against the Bears, but that does not diminish Gunn's skills. He has good vision, a good burst, and the speed to beat most players once he gets in the open. Outside of Gunn on kick returns, the Bears special teams might be the least impressive of the three phases. Northern Colorado struggles kicking, punting, and in coverage. Dave Eden returns to handle the placekicking duties. Eden is a solid kicker inside 35 yards, but is inconsistent at distance. Eden has a career long of 42 yards, but was just 4 of 8 kicking from 35 or more yards a year ago, and was 9 of 14 overall. Kickoff specialist Mason Puckett will take over the punting duties this year, and he was less than stellar kicking the ball off. Puckett's kickoffs were short and low, allowing for plenty of returns, and should that translate to punting the already poor punt cover teams will have an even harder time covering punts. As for those kickoffs, Puckett averaged just 60.4 yards per kick and just five touchbacks. Even with the new rules, an average Puckett kickoff from the 35-yard line would be fielded at the 5-yard line. The Bears coverage units allowed an average of 23 yards per kick return, and 12.3 yards per punt return. The kick return number is solid, but the punt return number is poor. For reference, 21 and 7 yards are about average, respectively.
Utah has issues of their own in the kicking game. Coleman Petersen suffered through bouts of inconsistency last season, and unfortunately for Utah that continued on throughout the spring and fall. When good, Petersen is a very accurate kicker from 45 yards in. When off, Petersen can miss what should be easy kicks by a wide margin. Backup Nick Marsh, while a good kickoff specialist, was even more inconsistent than Petersen when it came to placekicking. Punter Sean Sellwood recovered from a slow start to the 2011 season to have a solid year punting the ball. Utah's return games appear to be very good. DeVonte Christopher and Reggie Dunn are excellent kick returners, and Dunn especially is a threat to score on any return. Charles Henderson showed flashes of brilliance as a punt returner before injuries forced him to redshirt a season ago. Utah's coverage teams are generally excellent, and they were fantastic in their Pac-12 debut, ranking in the top 15 nationally in both punt retuns (4.6 yards per return, 12th nationally) and kick returns (18 yards per return, 6th nationally). Utah will be looking to replace special teams standout Greg Bird, though there are several players who played well on special teams, including defensive backs Reggie Topps and Chandler Johnson.
Northern Colorado comes out gunning, and they hit on at least one big play early as Utah plays very vanilla. Utah's offense struggles for the first quarter before coming to life in the second and taking a big lead into the half. Utah plays their starters to start the third quarter, building on the lead before giving way to the backups halfway through the third. The fourth quarter looks like a glorified scrimmage before the game mercifully ends with a comfortable win for the Utes.