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the Gekko File: Utah

This week's Gekko file brings us to the fine state of Utah and to the doorstep of its flagship university.  The Utes are not just a line from a Joe Pesci movie.  They are a living, breathing football team with a dedicated fan following and a proclivity for enduring pain.  Nestled in the mountain city of Salt Lake, the Utes count themselves as the fifth most popular subject of interest among Utahans behind Snow Skiing, the Book of Mormon, poor air quality and BYU.  After the jump, I give you the Gekko File:  Utah.

  • Much has been made about the fact that Utah has never beaten Washington in six tries.  I can't really add anything to that other than to note that my first bullet is always reserved for the all-time record versus Washington, so there you have it.
  • Utah is known as the Beehive state.  The Beehive makes an appearance on the state flag under the Latin term for "industry".  Apparently a Beehive is a metaphor for industry.  It makes sense.  Beehive is to industry as WSU is to Football.  Take that Mr. ACT-Test-Administrator.
  • No apology necessary if you feel that Utah football seems like a recent phenomenon.  Before Urban Meyer joined Utah in 2003 for a 3-year stepping stone gig on his way to Florida, the Utes had been to just nine bowl games.  Don't let that fool you.  While you were sleeping on them, Utah amassed the #40 all-time win % in Div 1 football history up until Urban arrived.  That is better than most Pac 12 teams other that USC (#10 all-time), Washington (#14), Colorado (#15), and Cal (#34).  Stanford was #41 over that same time period.
  • Since Urban Meyer took over, and after he handed off to Kyle Whittingham, Utah has been one of the more impressive stories in college football.  They have won two surprising BCS bowls in the last decade - a thrilling whipping of the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2009 Sugar Bowl and a stomping of Pitt in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.  Both games resulted in Utah finishing their seasons ranked in the top 4 of the country.
  • There are a number of loose connections between Utah and Washington.  You all know about Cort Dennison and Steve Sarkisian's connections to the state.  However, the most significant tie is current UW President and former Utah President, Michael Young.  The distinguished Mr. Young is, ironically, a graduate of Bringham Young University and of the Harvard Business School.  He reportedly enjoys cooking, traveling, biking, long walks on the beach and having his photo taken in front of elegantly placed stacks of books, few of which he has actually read.
  • Don't be surprised if you hear references to the MUSS on Saturday's broadcast.  The MUSS is Utah's student section and they are known to be the life of the rather small Rice-Eccles Stadium.  They have a tradition of bobbing up and down on third-downs and they track a running total of false start penalties like the King's Court tracks Felix's strikeouts.  Soooo juvenile.
  • This has nothing to do with the Utes but, if you've never been, you MUST make a trip to Zion National Park sometime in your life.  You'll see why the Mormon's stopped hiking the Mormon trail.  Stunning.
  • Kyle Whittingham is a scab.  That's right.  After an illustrious career as a linebacker for the BYU Cougars, the New Orleans Breakers and the Calgary Stampede, coach KW played for the Rams' replacement squad in 1987.
  • The State Flower of Utah is the sego lilly, a plant so special that it is included on the state flag.  The sego lily carries special meaning to the state because starving Mormons would eat the lily bulbs to survive while they endured their march to religious freedom.  Those of you who have eaten lily bulbs know that they literally taste like dung.  Thus, whenever someone tells a Ute to "eat shit", said Ute is likely to be inspired.  So, go ahead.  Share an act of kindness today.  Tell a Ute to EAT SHIT!
  • Outside of a cadre of religious and political figures, there is a surprising lack of interesting celebrities to come from the state of Utah.  Well, except for Donnie and Marie.
  • ... and Butch Cassidy (cool)
  • ... and Roseann Barr (uh, not cool)
  • If you look hard enough, you can find a recent video clip of a well-endowed and somewhat inebriated female engaging in nude cheerleading while at a Utah home game.  Go ahead and Google now.  I'll wait. 
  • Is it just me, or does Kyle Whittingham look like Dolph Lundgren?

Washington at Utah:  A Preview

I've taken the opportunity to TiVo Utah games twice this year (USC and BYU).  I also listened to the second half of the Montana State game on Sirius radio.  On top of that, I was personally on hand for the 2010 Las Vegas Bowl to witness the disembowelment of Utah versus Boise State.  I feel like I have a pretty good handle on this team and I'm excited to see them host Washington in their first ever Pac 12 game in RES.

Utah plays hard.  I mean really hard.  Whistle to whistle hard.  They play with energy and perseverance.  They are tough and they play with a collective chip on their shoulder.  They play like their coach played.  What they lack in flashy skill, they make up for in bitter attitude.  They are a team that a fan base can be proud of because they just keep coming and coming and coming. The question is where are they going?

Utah comes into this weekend boasting one of the least sexy offenses in the Pac 12.  They return just one all-conference player from a year ago - beastly OT Tony Bergstrom.  Their ring leader is QB Jordan Wynn - a savvy guy who shows good command of Norm Chow's new pro-style offense, but who lacks anything resembling a Pac 12 arm.  Jordan relies on his wits and his decision-making to beat you.  When he is getting good protection (sometimes) and support from his running game (often), he can hit the open man.  That said, he's the least talented of the QBs that Washington has faced this season and he represents an opportunity for our defense to "get right".  That said, Jordan has a few weapons in WR. DeVonte Christopher and TB John White IV.  I'm particularly impressed with White.  While he is a bit streaky, he is a slasher style runner who has good burst.  His 127 yards per game and 5 rushing TDs are second in the conference to LaMichael James.  His style reminds me of Ricky Watters.  Utah will throw a lot of White at UW in order to create cushion for Wynn and to set up play action.  Look out for talented freshmen RB Harvey Langhi and WR Dres Anderson to make appearances and, possibly, a few plays.

Defensively, Utah features a burly Defensive Line and what was expected to be a troublesome secondary.  While Utah fans will point to Utah as having a dominant defense, the reality is that Utah is just fifth in the conference in yards allowed per game.  Their passing defense, in particular, is 10th in the conference.  Utah fans will no doubt have lots of explanations for this situation but, let's be honest, this is not a secondary that is going to slow the second most efficient passing offense in the Pac 12 and the nation's leading TD passer (you go, Keith Price).  In fact, Utes fans may be surprised to learn that their hallowed D is earning just about the same number of sacks/game as UW.  What has been working for Utah is their turnover margin - a stunning +3 per game.  They have recovered 12 fumbles and picked off four passes.  Some of this is earned, but some is chance. only credits Utah with four forced fumbles this year - the other net eight gained being as a result of unforced errors by their opponents.  Still, you need to be wary of the Utah defense.  There are a bunch of tough guys on the squad and they play hungry.  Leaders on their D include senior LB Chaz Walker, senior DE Derrick Shelby and Jr CB Ryan Lacy.

The Prediction:  Washington 44 - Utah 28

I respect Utah and I started out this week thinking that this might be a game that Utah would pull out.  However, as I studied it I couldn't help but to think that so much of what has impressed me about Utah has come either against Montana St or after they got rolling from all of those early turnovers against BYU.  The better comparisons are the games versus Boise St and USC.  While it was last season, they were wretched in the Las Vegas Bowl against Boise St - an offense that operates at the same efficiency as UW's.  They played with a ton of heart against USC, but the UU offense simply wasn't up to the task against what is a very average USC defense.  Utah has a significant home field advantage, but I expect UW to be able to move the ball on the Utes and to quiet the crowd quickly.  I also don't expect the massive (lucky?) TO margin advantage that Utah has enjoyed to continue into Saturday.  The wild card in this for me is John White.  If he can get it rolling, all bets are off.  I suppose that I'm not convinced he can do so against Pac 12 defenses quite yet. 

Add it all up and I'm going to forecast this as the biggest road victory that Washington will have enjoyed in the last several years.  KirkD will be impressed with how well Talia Crichton and Josh Shirley play in the absence of Hau'oli Jamora.  Hawnk will have witty insights about how Cort Dennison overcame his demons and led his defensive mates.  Rollo will tell someone to "suck it".  B Money will note that we will only be two wins away from bowl eligibility with both WSU and OSU still on the schedule and will immediately place a call to his bookie. JazzyUte will freak out on the inside, but put a brave face on the outside.  The Utah-Ucla guy will be classy in defeat.  Crazi will be Crazi.  Bugs will still be drunk.  Berkowitz will just be happy that I failed (for once) to offend anyone other than most Cal fans.  All will be well in Husky land once more.

Other Predictions:

...  Chris Polk will have his first "explosive" rush of the season - call it 46 yards and a TD on a toss sweep to the left

...  Callier will score his first career TD (if I keep saying it, it will happen)

...  Surprise player of the game:  Jamaal Kearse

...  DeVonte Christopher will be the star of the game for Utah

...  Kyle Whittingham will be cool

...  Norm Chow will not

...  The battle of intangibles will be close with commentators calling it a draw