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.