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September 2, 2009

Sizing up the Battle of the Brothers

The Battle of the Brothers - one of the most played rivalries in college football history - will kick off for the 109th time Thursday night when Utah hosts rival Utah State. Utah has dominated the series overall and over the last decade, winning the last 11 games to run the series record to 76-28-4 in favor of the Utes. This season, there is a new dynamic involved as former Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen is now the head coach of the Aggies. Make no mistake, though, the Utes want to beat their former coach. "Man, I'm not even going to look at him," Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said about Andersen being on the opposing sideline. "I'll look at him after the game. It will be strange seeing him in blue. I wish him bad luck on Thursday but after that, nothing but the best."

Here's a look inside the matchups and players to watch:

Utah Run Offense vs Utah State Run Defense
Utah is expected to lean heavily on the running game to aid their inexperience quarterbacks. Fortunately for the Utes Matt Asiata and most of a very good offensive line return for 2009. Utah ran for 155 yards per game in 2008 and should better that number in 2009.

Asiata ran for 707 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2008 while splitting carries with Darrell Mack. With Mack gone, Asiata is expected to double his workload, especially with the inexperience at quarterback. Asiata has the luxury of running behind a very good offensive line headlined by All-America candidate Zane Beadles. When Asiata needs a breather, the Utes will bring in Eddie Wide. Wide's speed and slashing style compliments Asiata's power running extremely well.

Utah State was not very good at stopping the run last year, giving up 160 yards per game on the ground at almost 4.5 yards per carry. Utah State is small and inexperienced up front and should be dominated by the bigger, more athletic Utah running game. Sophomore defensive end Junior Keiaho is the only starter on the Aggie line to have started a game. Senior linebacker Paul Igboeli returns after a very good 2008 season and safety James Brindley will spend a lot of time in the box to help contain the Utah running game. The Utes ran all over the Aggies in 2008, piling up 248 yards on the ground.

Utah State Run Offense vs Utah Run Defense
Utah State ran for 137 yards a game in 2008 with an unsettled backfield. Three different running backs started for the Aggies last season. Utah was fantastic stopping the run, finishing 11th nationally allowing 99 yards per game on the ground. Utah State ran for just 27 yards against the Utes last year in Logan.

Aggies quarterback Diondre Borel lead the team in rushing with 632 yards in 2008. Robert Turbin was inconsistent a year ago as a freshman but showed enough promise to enter 2009 as the Aggies top running back. Turbin finished 2008 second on the team in rushing yards with 485 and led the Aggies with 8 rushing touchdowns. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham went as far to say that Turbin is "a great football player."

Utah returns most of their defensive front and all three linebackers. All-America candidate Stevenson Sylvester is the leader of the Utah defense and will play a big role in stopping the run and containing Borel. Leading tackler Mike Wright is back at middle linebacker after recording 81 tackles in 2008. Up front the Utes finally get some size back in the middle after injuries forced the Utes to play with a pair of undersized tackles for most of 2008. Nose guard Kenape Eliapo had a huge game in the Sugar Bowl after missing most of last season with injuries and needs to have a breakout year in 2009.

Utah Pass Offense vs Utah State Pass Defense
The biggest hole on the 2009 Utah roster is quarterback. Star quarterback Brian Johnson is gone and no quarterback on the roster was with the team in 2008. Utah also lost their top three receivers. It will be difficult for the Utes to match the 244 yards per game in the air from 2008 with a new quarterback throwing to new receivers. Utah State was one of the worst pass defenses in the country a year ago, giving up over 250 yards per game while only getting to the quarterback 18 times.

All signs point to Terrance Cain starting for the Utes at quarterback. The junior college player of the year in 2008 is similar to Johnson in that he can throw and run the ball well. Cain was the most accurate quarterback throughout fall camp and does a good job of not turning the ball over. David Reed is the top returning receiver and is a legitimate top target. Jereme Brooks also returns as a playmaking threat. There is not much behind those two in the way of experience. Keep an eye on JC transfer Shaky Smithson.

Senior cornerback Kejon Murphy and Brindley are the best players in the Aggie secondary. Utah State has decent athletes in the secondary but need to generate more of a pass rush to help them out. Keiaho is the top returning pass rusher with just 2.5 sacks. Converted running back Curtis Marsh will start at corner opposite Murphy.

Utah State Pass Offense vs Utah Pass Defense
Utah State struggled in the air in 2008, completing 56% of their passes for only 196 yards per game while no receiver caught more than 37 passes. Utah's pass defense was solid, giving up 190 yards per game. Utah was excellent at getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers, ending 2008 with 19 interceptions and 29 sacks.

Borel needs to throw the ball better in 2009. Borel completed 56% of his passes for 142 yards per game while throwing 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2008. Stanley Morrison is the top returning receiver with just 26 catches in 2008. Turbin is a very good receiver out of the backfield. The Aggies need to protect the quarterback better - Utah State allowed 32 sacks a year ago.

Utah will rely on safety Robert Johnson to help out the new cornerbacks. Johnson is a great security blanket as he can go from the middle of the field to the sideline as fast as any safety in the country. Joe Dale is very good in his own right giving the Utes one of the top safety duos in college football. The questions lie at cornerback. Starters R.J. Stanford and Brandon Burton should be solid but Utah needs to find a third and fourth corner to play in nickel and dime packages. Utah's pass rush should be very good, even with end Koa Misi likely out for Utah State. Look for ends Derrick Shelby and Nai Fotu to spend a lot of time in the Aggie backfield.

Special Teams
Utah State returns virtually every significant special teams performer from 2008, though a few changes have been made. Chris Ulinski will take over place kicking duties from Peter Caldwell. Caldwell converted 10 of his 12 field goal attempts last season. Caldwell will remain the punter after averaging 41.9 yards per punt in 2008. Ulinski does have the better leg and made both of his field goals a year ago. Top return man Kejon Murphy also returns after averaging over 24 yards per kick return and 8.8 yards per punt return, though Murphy is only listed as a punt returner on the depth chart.

Utah must replace All-American kicker and punter Louie Sakoda. Ben Vroman ran away with the place kicking job in fall camp and has an extremely strong leg. Sean Sellwood came on strong in camp and won the starting punter job. Both must prove they can be consistent on game day. Utah's return game should be solid with David Reed returning kicks and Luke Matthews returning punts. The wildcard in the special teams play will be new long snapper Patrick Greene.

Utah State is rebuilding the program from the ground up. New head coach and former Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen cleaned house and brought in a completely new staff. Not only must the staff get to know the strengths and weaknesses of players they have never worked with before, but they must get to know each other as well. The good news for the Aggies is that Andersen brought with him some experienced coaches. Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin has been in that role for eight years, including the last two at New Mexico. Defensive coordinator Bill Busch has never been a coordinator but has more than 10 years of coaching experience. Andersen does know Utah's personnel and schemes, which does give him an edge in that he knows what Utah will be doing on the field.

On the other sideline, Whittingham has become one of the top coaches in the country and is already in the top five all time at Utah in both wins and winning percentage. Whittingham did have to replace both coordinators but promoted from within the program adding an element of continuity and stability to a young team. The biggest change will be on offense, as Dave Schramm looks to run a more aggressive, fast-paced offense than previous coordinator Andy Ludwig. Defensively, Kalani Sitake will continue to run the same base defense the Utes have used since Whittingham's father ran the defense in the early 90's.

Utah State's x-factor is Diondre Borel. Borel's ability to run the ball could give the Utah front seven fits, especially if he shows the ability to consistently complete passes and not turn the ball over. With the Aggies wanting to spread the field with three, four, or even five receivers Borel could have running lanes if the Utes defensive line does not pass rush with discipline. Borel will also be a factor should the new Aggies staff decide to utilize the option game in the spread attack. Borel and Turbin could be a very formidable option tandem, and the Aggies have enough athleticism at receiver to run a Florida-type spread option attack. Utah has had problems defending the option in the past.

For the Utes, the easy answer for x-factor would be the starting quarterback. With the Utes expected to lean on the running game, the quarterback play will not be as important. Utah will need good play from the unsettled nickel back spot. Lamar Chapman and Justin Jones will play a lot, and safety Justin Taplin-Ross could also see playing time in a dime role. None of the three have much in the way of game experience.

Though this game should not be close, Borel will have more to do with the final score than just about any player on the field.

Simply put, Utah is the better team. Gary Andersen and Utah State will keep the game close in the first quarter. Utah will run away with the game in the second and third quarters.

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