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And in that corner… The Utah Utes

Nov 10, 2010, 1:22 PM EST

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It’s hard to know what to expect this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. Enter Utah, who a week ago was in contention for the national championship, and ranked fifth in the country. With a true freshman quarterback now manning an offense without it’s All-American tight end and emerging star Theo Riddick, there was little reason for hope if you were an Irish fan.

But then last Saturday happened. While the Irish were home resting, the Utes got exposed on a national stage in the biggest football game of last week, getting drubbed by No. 3 TCU 47-7, in a game that poked plenty of holes in the legitimacy of Kyle Whittingham’s troops.

To get a better feel for Utah, we’re bringing in Sean Reynolds, the proprietor of Block U, the “home to the University of Utah and all its classless fans!” (I’m guessing this self-endorsement was a nod to former BYU quarterback Max Hall.) A Ute fan for most of his life, he’s also got the unfortunate ability to say that he’s been a Notre Dame fan since birth, even holding onto a rare 1993 keepsake t-shirt, “Catholics vs. Mormons.”

I asked the questions and Sean gave the answers:

Inside the Irish: Notre Dame fans know firsthand the feeling that Utah fans felt last Saturday. What do you really know about this Utah football team after nine games?

Sean Reynolds: I think the Utes are a very good team who played a very bad game and the result was their first loss of the season. They’re not at TCU’s level and with how talented and experienced the Frogs are, it shouldn’t be a surprise. With that said, I really don’t think TCU is 40 points better than Utah. That made their loss that much harder to accept. It was an ugly game all around and I think proof that even good teams can be de-pantsed if they don’t bring it every week.

ITI: Obviously, Utah isn’t in the same league as TCU, which isn’t surprising after looking at the youth on offense for the Utes. What type of team walks into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday?

SR: I’m hoping a team that is very focused. Their loss Saturday certainly stung and cast some doubt on this team’s ability. However, they didn’t just luck into eight wins and they have proven over the course of the season they are a good team. They can’t get caught up in how poorly they played Saturday and instead use that as a template of what not to do the remainder of the season.

ITI: Saturday wasn’t Jordan Wynn’s best day at the office. What will he need to do to get the offense back in order?

SR: Jordan Wynn has played an awful lot like a sophomore this year. He’s put together some great games and struggled in others and that inconsistent play has really altered the way the offense succeeds week in and week out. Saturday, they couldn’t get much of anything going and I’m not so sure that was entirely Wynn’s fault. He didn’t play well and that was obvious to anyone that watched the game, but a lot of passes were dropped and that ultimately put the Utes in a hole early.

Wynn also was hindered by play calling, which set to establish a passing game early at the expense of the run — which makes sense, since TCU’s run defense is tops nationally.

This week though, I anticipate Utah won’t rely so much on Wynn’s arm. They’ve still got two good backs in Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata and both should have a better time running against Notre Dame’s 79th-ranked rush defense. If they can establish a ground game early, which they weren’t able to do Saturday, expect Wynn to settle in a bit more and not force up as many bad throws.

ITI: The defense should be ready to tee off on a Notre Dame offense that’s missing its quarterback, running back, tight end, and starting slot receiver. How do you think Utah will try to defend the Irish?

SR: I really wouldn’t be surprised if Utah tested Notre Dame’s young quarterback early. The Irish had produced a pretty effective passing offense up to the injury of Dayne Crist and it’ll be interesting to see if that carries over with so much change under center. The fact the Irish are toward the bottom of the nation in running pretty much tells the story. If you stop their passing game, you stop their offense and probably win the game. So that’s the path I think the Utes will take. Especially since they rank 25th nationally in pass defense.

ITI: The nation isn’t used to seeing a Kyle Whittingham team get beaten like they did on Saturday. What does the Utah fanbase make of the loss? Is it a knock on Whittingham?

SR: The loss was surprising because, like you said, we’re not used to Whittingham getting his clock cleaned like that. But bad losses happen. I don’t think it’s a knock on Whittingham because he’s been on the other side of a blowout many, many times (Sugar Bowl against Alabama for starters). He’s won too many games and done so much for the program for fans to question his coaching.

ITI: Gut feeling on Saturday?

SR: My gut says Utah comes out and plays harder than we’ve probably seen this season. They’re not as bad as TCU made ‘em look Saturday and I think they want to prove that to the nation. It was an embarrassing loss and that can’t be the lasting image of our program in 2010. They’ll be fired up and I suspect they’ll win. But they can’t enter this game expecting that Notre Dame is going to lie down and die. The Irish are fighting for bowl eligibility. They’re fighting for respect. They’re fighting to right the ship and a win over Utah would surely add some much needed spark to a listless program. They’re very capable of winning this game and as Utah proved last week, they’re not immune to bad play.

But ultimately, I have too much trust in Kyle Whittingham to believe they’ll overlook the Irish or enter too confident. They were humbled last Saturday and it will show in their performance this weekend.

*****

A special thanks to Sean for the in-depth answers. Check out Block U for more Utah coverage throughout the week.

  1. grouchomarx4 - Nov 10, 2010 at 4:13 PM

    As they say in Utah, “I don’t care how you bring ‘em; just Brigham Young.”

  2. jerseyshorendfan1 - Nov 10, 2010 at 8:01 PM

    I think Sean’s gut feeling is right on the money. This Utah team has a national stage to prove last week was an aberration. They will make the most of it. Too bad for our Seniors. I think its gonna be ugly, 45-21 Utes.

    • jimbasil - Nov 10, 2010 at 11:24 PM

      Exactly. It really makes sense when you look at the record of the Utes over the past couple of years and where they have made their mark. They are really not a team that is easily intimidated and Southbend will not intimidate a team that’s had much time to work on a system of play.

      With that said, the logical play for the Utes defense is attack the pass and the ND offense will shut down. I’d do it, you’d do it and likely Wittingham will do it. This is where Kelly has to prove himself, and figure out a good screen game and a power running game inspite of all this. A run game smartly played with the passing game. ND is expecting two QB’s to be in attendance this weekend so I hope Kelly is not playing to them. He needs to establish a run game at some time in the near future, it may as well start this weekend.

      I look for Hughes to power run, fake run and receive on screens and short tosses over the middle. Rees appears to be a more accurate passer with more touch than Crist (something Crist seemed to be missing) so maybe the short game will be there.

      But all in all, the Utes should win big. Too many mistakes by ND on offense (both coaching and players) and the ND defense will surrender big plays as per usual.

  3. fitz79 - Nov 11, 2010 at 12:28 PM

    I’ve never felt comfortable taking on a talented team the week after they get humiliated. It doesn’t bode well for our chances. Not too mention at this point Utah would have to be morons to be intimidated by playing in South Bend. I mean Tulsa, yes Tulsa, only had to play a mediocre game to win in Notre Dame stadium: Syracuse, Connecticut, the list goes on. Having said that if Rees could find a way to play a phenomenal game and lead us to a win and break this dismal 11 losses in a row to ranked teams he’d be an instant hero and quite possibly the starter next year. With the exception of the final pass last week I think he played better than Clausen did when he was thrown in as a freshman.I don’t think Rees really decreases our chances any more than if Crist were healthy, I just think the odds are stacked against us whoever’s taking the snaps. Furthermore, we need a huge game on defense! Let’s see our defense score some points for once.

    • bostonjan - Nov 11, 2010 at 3:00 PM

      I don’t remember this year’s Irish (coached by Kelly and staff) losing 11 games in a row to ranked teams, nor to Syracuse or Connecticut. I think stats that go beyond this year’s staff and schedule are useless. Wasn’t that the point of a coaching change and new systems for offense and defense?

      I wouldn’t expect Utah to be intimidated by ND this year, in fact I hope that they arrive overly confident….physically beaten up from their bout with TCU and emotionally flat would be nice as well. I also hope that the Irish players focus on execution, one play at a time. Trying to play phenomenal, forcing things will cause more mistakes, turnovers, etc. Do your assignments on each and every play.

      I do think that the team has gotten better within the new system each and every week. The best is if the players believe in the possibility/likelihood of winning and execute accordingly. You’ll see what you believe.

  4. 3458don - Nov 11, 2010 at 8:47 PM

    I just looked at Utah’s schedule with a great deal of detail and came away with one conclusion.
    I hope the coaches brought up the fact that this team probably is not who they look like, and
    do exactly what bostonjan said in the above post. Their schedule is littered with the who’s who
    of bad teams, and not only defensively, but also offensively. The combined winning % of the
    teams on their schedule is a wooping 40% (and that includes TCU’s 10-0 mark), where as ND’s
    is at 63%. Their defense is ranked about the same as Pitt and their offense is ranked a little
    better than Mich.St. They played 5 teams that are ranked 97th or higher offensively, and the
    same 5 teams that are ranked 94th or higher defensively. Also throw Colorado St. in there
    at 80th and 87th respectfully. ND’s worst offense played is BC at 112, but their defense is
    ranked 16th. Even Purdue is better than what they deal with at 104 & 56 respectfully.
    If Nd play within themselves and not get too overly excited,(play fast but under control)
    and not let the ranking creep into their heads, they could pull off the upset. If they start off
    solid, this could be a good game. Their play at this point is more about the mental part
    of it than anything else. Just go out have fun, fly to the ball with plenty of hats, eliminate
    the mistakes, and you’ll be suprised what you can accomplish.

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