It's only seven games in, but the 2006 season has been a rugged enough roller coaster to make even the stoutest Ute fan sick. After the third blowout loss of the season, and arguably the third blowout loss in the last 10 years, the Utes are scrapping for answers while the fans are looking for places to point fingers at. Thursday night the Utes will face a New Mexico team coming off a big win over a bad team, a 39-36 win at UNLV in overtime. The Lobos aren't great shakes, but they have beaten the Utes in three of the last four years. While New Mexico has lost at home to Portland St. this season, they also roughed up UTEP and gave ranked Missouri a tough time before fading in the end.
The atmosphere at University Stadium will get a boost from big No. 54, as the Lobos will be inducting Brian Urlacher into the new "Wall of Fame."
Last season's Ute loss at Rice-Eccles to New Mexico arguably changed the direction of the program and affected where the Utes stand today. Brian Johnson shredded his knee while scrambling on a fourth down play, giving way to the once-heroic, now maligned Brett Ratliff. Can Ratliff return to the form he showed after Johnson went down? If he doesn't, it will be Grady's show in Salt Lake.
The Utes will likely be without two starting linebackers. Stevenson Sylvester twisted his ankle on the opening kickoff against Wyoming and Kyle Brady is nursing a shoulder injury. J.J. Williams and Malakai Mokofisi will get starts in their places.
Scouting the Lobos
The Lobo offense
After many years of glory, Hank Baskett and DonTrell Moore are finally out of the MWC's hair. They haven't been replaced in the slightest, but the Lobos have still been able to score somewhat consistently. You might notice a famous name on the coaching roster. It's former UCLA head coach Bob Toledo, who now mans the offense in Albuquerque. His side of the ball has been inconsistent thus far, but he definately has the credentials.
The biggest question mark is at quarterback, where New Mexico is down to their third stringer. Incumbent Kole McKamey went down with a knee injury in week two, giving way to Chris Nelson. Nelson was at the helm against the Utes last season, while McKamey was out injured as well. But Nelson has been innefective this season, and was pulled in favor of redshirt freshman Donovan Porterie. Porterie got his first collegiate start against the Rebels last week, throwing for 168 yards and a touchdown. He's a pocket passer with good mobility if he gets in a jam.
Sophomore Rodney Ferguson is a workhorse at running back. He's not the explosive runner Moore was, but he gets the job done. Ferguson leads the MWC in rushing yards with 552, and averages 4.2 yards per carry. At 226-pounds you would think he just hangs out as a blocker on pass plays, but he has hauled in 10 catches, two of which went for touchdowns. If Ferguson goes down, there isn't much behind him. The next running back on the stat chart has 58 yards this year.
Travis Brown and Marcus Smith are the only consistent receiving threats. Both have NFL size, with Brown leading the team with 32 catches. Smith has 28 grabs and a team-high 5 touchdowns. He was the MWC player of the week after a 179-yard, 3-touchdown game at New Mexico State in week two, but has been fairly quiet since then.
After seeing what Wyoming did to Ratliff, the Lobo D has to be licking their chops. They run the same blitzing 3-3-5 as the Pokes, and were in Johnson's grill all game last year. UNLV of all teams proved you can score on New Mexico, but Utah has proven they can sputter with the worst of them. The player Ratliff will most have to watch for is defensive end Michael Tuohy. This guy was the defensive hero for the Lobos in Salt Lake last year, recovering a fumble, sacking Johnson forcing a fumble for a touchdown on the same play, and picking off Ratliff on the goal line to seal the victory. He has four sacks this season to lead the team, and recovered a Rebel fumble in overtime last week to ensure the win.
Tyler Donaldson and Steve Hutchison are also undersized, but very quick lineman that can get to the quarterback. Donaldson has 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, while Hutchison has three sacks of his own as well.
Quincy Black is the top linebacker, lining up at the patented "Lobo" position. He is the team leader by 25 tackles, having accrued a remarkable 71 this season. Cody Kase was expected to be an All-America candidate heading into the season, but has been hobbled by a hamstring injury most of the season. Unfortunately for the Utes, Kase is now back in form, having returned an interception 47-yards for a touchdown in Vegas. Major Mosley is also notable at this position, having two fumble recoveries and 2.5 sacks so far.
DeAndre Wright is a natural cornerback, who never played the position prior to college. He has three interceptions this season and four pass breakups. Besides suffering from "Stevenson Sylvester Switched-up Name Syndrome", Glover Quin is also a good cornerback, with six pass breakups and good size. At 5-foot-9, O.J. Swift does not have good size, but the safety is the team's second leading tackler.
Kenny Byrd is perhaps the best placekicker in the league. He has hit on 11-of-14 field goals and is a perfect 9-of-9 from within 40 yards. 17 of his 31 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. Jordan Scott is a decent enough punter, averaging 40.1 yards per kick.