To get some inside information on the Utah football team before the homecoming game, Daily Bruin Sports reached out to The Daily Utah Chronicle – Utah’s school newspaper – and asked a few questions about the Utes before their upcoming game against UCLA this Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
Daily Bruin Sports: After retiring about a month earlier, running back Joe Williams came back Saturday to help the team deal with a spate of injuries and shredded the Oregon State defense for 179 yards on 34 carries. With freshman Zack Moss possibly returning soon, what’s your take on the Utes’ unusual running back situation? Who should we expect to see Saturday and for the rest of the season, and what do each of the backs offer?
Daily Utah Chronicle: I expect Joe Williams to start on Saturday. He is listed atop the depth chart this week, and the coaching staff has not yet announced whether or not Zack Moss will (be) available. This whole situation has been odd to say the least. The Utes seem to keep losing someone week after week, and of course the majority of the running backs have been injured at some point or another. The run game was the top priority last year, and to some extent it’s what is working well for the Utes this year as well – it’s just that no one can manage to stay healthy. I think if the Utes had everyone healthy the carries would still be split pretty evenly among the contenders for that starting role. If anything, the Utes are able to rely on the run game if (quarterback) Troy Williams is unsuccessful through the air.
DB Sports: There’s obviously been a huge rash of injuries for the Utes this season, including season-ending ones to key pieces like offensive lineman J.J. Dielman and defensive end Kylie Fitts. How has Utah dealt with the onslaught of injuries and what’s the outlook going forward in terms of health across the roster?
DUC: Losing J.J. Dielman was rough. That starting center job is so vital to how the team starts a play of course, and there wasn’t that chemistry once Troy Williams was taking the snaps from somebody else. Although he thinks there are no more issues between him and (offensive lineman) Lo Falemaka, there does seem to be a few lingering issues.
Kylie Fitts’ injury stung as well, because of how much he could disrupt the opposing team’s offense. However, (defensive back) Chase Hansen, who was already starting alongside him, has been picking up the slack. The former quarterback has done a nice job transitioning, and Hansen’s experience as a quarterback does give him a special insight.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham thinks this is the worst year he has seen injurywise, but the team has its “next man up” mentality. However, I’m not sure how many more blows this team can sustain. Getting down to your second, third and fourth string options isn’t going to hold up for too long.
DB Sports: UCLA’s running game has been god-awful this year, ranking 126th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards per carry and offering little in the way of support for sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen. The coaches have said they think they’re finding ways to improve the rushing attack, but Utah’s defense has been pretty strong against the run for the most part. Do you see UCLA having any chance of success on the ground, and what can they do to help make it happen?
DUC: I do think UCLA has a chance to catch Utah off guard regarding the run. Against BYU, the Utes let the Cougars get away with quite a few big run plays. Obviously the defense wasn’t where it needed to be at that point in the season in that 20-19 win, but it’s certainly something to consider.
For the most part you are right, though, Utah does a decent job of protecting against the run. However, just like any team, it has its moments, and UCLA just needs to make sure to take advantage of any opportunity.
DB Sports: The UCLA defense is excellent at preventing the big play, and Utah hasn’t been all that explosive offensively this year, so the Utes might be forced into moving the ball methodically. Will they be able to do that? How much success do you see them having against the Bruins’ strong defense?
DUC: I think the Utes will be able to move the ball down the field, but the real question is whether or not they will cross the goal line. Utah has struggled all season in the red zone, and like Whittingham mentioned his his weekly press conference earlier this week, the team cannot continue to leave points on the field – it needs to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals.
DB Sports: This matchup is a weird one, considering the two teams’ levels of talent respective to their records. UCLA is 3-4, but according to many of Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics, the Bruins have been better than the 6-1 Utes. What are the expectations for Utah coming into this game, and how do you see it playing out?
DUC: Utah hasn’t had that decisive win quite yet. Sure, the Utes beat Arizona by a good 13 points, but they had to fight to get back into that game. In a sense, they haven’t had a game where all units were clicking.
I think Utah needs that decisive win before Washington comes to Salt Lake City (it should have been against Oregon State, but the weather did impact what the Utes were able to accomplish). I expect to see the passing game take a more prominent role since Troy Williams only attempted 13 passes this past weekend (not to mention he only completed four of those passes).
I think this game will be tight at the beginning, a lot of back-and-forth play, but in the end I see Utah pulling out a decent, but not decisive, 28-20 win.