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October 14, 2005

Utes ready for Aztecs

After a disappointing start to the season and two straight road losses, Utah (3-3, 1-2 in MWC play) returns to Salt Lake to take on San Diego State (2-4, 1-2). Another historically close series, Utah has a slim 12-11-1 lead all time, but the Aztecs last win in Salt Lake came nearly 14 years ago on October 26th, 1991. Utah is looking to rebound from two difficult road losses, and should be aided by a Homecoming crowd anxious to see the Utes at home, their only home game of the month.

Last week, Utah lost 21-17 to Colorado State after the Utes had 1st and Goal from the 4 yard line and failed to score, the last three attempts coming from inside the CSU 1. The defense surrendered 18 4th quarter points as the CSU running game broke free after being held in check for most of the game. Actually, Utah had two chances inside the CSU 10 in the 4th quarter and managed only a field goal.

San Diego State is coming off of a disappointing 13-10 road loss as well. Playing in Las Vegas and facing 30 mile-per-hour winds, the Aztecs managed only 140 yards and 10 points, while giving up 4 turnovers. Defenses dominated the entire game, as both offenses struggled to move the ball against the wind. UNLV kicker Sergio Aguayo nailed a 52 yard field goal with 7 seconds left to win the game for the Rebels. Adding injury to insult, sophomore tailback and Doak Walker Award candidate Lynell Hamilton left the game in the second quarter due to a hamstring injury. Hamilton is expected to play against the Utes.

San Diego State - What to Watch:

Running Game: How well will Lynell Hamilton play? Sometimes hamstring injuries can take a while to heal. If he's not 100%, how effective can he be? Depth is decent with true freshman Brandon Bornes (he had a 41 yard run against Utah last year) and senior Michael Franklin, but neither are the quality of back that a healthy Hamilton is. Franklin is small (5-foot-7, 180 pounds), but fast and quick while Bornes is big (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and strong, with good speed.

Receivers: The Aztecs have probably the best receiver duo in the conference in Jeff Webb and Robert Ortiz. Both are big, strong receivers who run great routes and block well downfield. Webb is the better of the two, a terrific all-around receiver and athlete with a work ethic to match. Splitting time in San Diego State's 3 WR sets are sophomores Chazeray Schilens and Brent Swain. Swain has good speed, and is averaging over 19 yards per catch with a long of 80, the Aztecs longest offensive play of the year.

Offensive Line: For a group that returns all 5 starters, including 3 seniors, they have not played particularly well this season. The line has given up 19 sacks in 6 games, including 4 to UCLA, 6 to San Jose State and 5 to UNLV, all nearly double their season averages. Added to their struggles to protect the QB is the fact that the Aztecs are 65th in rushing yards per game with 140.3 and 84th in yards per carry at 3.4. Outside of Ohio State and UNLV, they have not faced a team with a run defense ranked higher than 70th.

Special Teams: San Diego State's kicking game is fantastic, as punter Michael Hughes is averaging over 45 yards per punt, with 8 over 50 yards (including 3 with a long of 78 last week against UNLV) and 9 downed inside the 20. Kicker Garrett Palmer is 6-7 on field goals this season with a long of 47 yard.

Utah - What to Watch:

Offensive Line - A group that has played well at times, poorly at others. The line seems to lack the dominating, physical attitude of last season. Still, they have played well, just not what most observers expected coming into the season. Utah is averaging 4.1 yards per carry while giving up 13 sacks. The sack number could be lower, but the line is doing a decent job of opening holes for the running game. Don't let the CSU's goal line stand fool you, this is still a good line. They should be able to win the battle up front in the running game, but could have a hard time containing SDSU's pass rushing ends.

Cornerbacks - After being benched last week in favor of true freshman Brice McCain, Ryan Smith played well enough to have pulled even with McCain on the depth chart. Eugene Oates is solid at the other corner. Who starts and who "sits" well mean very little as all three will see plenty of playing time with the Aztecs using 3-4 wide receiver sets most of the time.

Defensive Line - Injuries to a few expected contributors before the season started has really hurt the defensive line, as they are down from a 9 man rotation to a 6 or 7 man rotation. That could explain some of the 4th quarter problems the defense has had in stopping the run and getting pressure on the quarterback. The line has to do a good job against the Aztecs and keep O'Connell from making plays with his feet.

Fourth Quarter execution - Utah has really struggled in the fourth quarter this season. The offense has only scored 16 fourth quarter points all season, and is converting an atrocious 24% of their 3rd downs (6-25) after converting a respectable 43.4% through the first 3 quarters. Utah has actually won the 4th quarter time of possession battle, holding onto the ball for an average of 8 minutes and 12 seconds. The defense has struggled as well, allowing opponents to convert 40% of their 3rd downs (10-25) while giving up 53 points. Basically, the offense needs to do a better job of executing and sustaining drives that lead to points. That will also help the defense out, but the defense has blown a lot of assignments. The team has improved as the season has progressed, but still has lots of room to improve. They will, but need to step it up this week.

Who to watch:

San Diego State


QB Kevin O'Connell: - After struggling in his freshman season, O'Connell has really had an outstanding sophomore year. He is completing 66% of his passes and throwing for 201 yards per game. He needs to make better reads, as he has thrown 6 interceptions on the season to 7 touchdowns. A terrific athlete, O'Connell is also a dangerous runner with 153 yards and 2 touchdowns on the season. Utah needs to get pressure on O'Connell while not allowing him to make plays with his feet.

RB Quinton Ganther: - "Q" came up big last week after three sub-par outings with 112 yards on 18 carries, and some great blitz pickups. Q is a solid all-around back and the key to the offense. If he is playing well, the offense is more efficient and productive. Playing against a defense that has struggled to stop the run, Q will need to have a big game to take the pressure off the offensive line and slow down the Aztec pass rush.

WR Jeff Webb: - Webb has already been discussed, but the key matchup of the game could be Webb and Utah CB's Ryan Smith and Brice McCain. Webb is much bigger and much more experience than both Smith and McCain, and Webb had a big game against Utah last season with 9 catches for 138 yards and 2 touchdowns.

WR Marquis Wilson: - Wilson was pulled off of his redshirt last week and saw ten snaps. Due to injuries to starters Travis LaTendresse, Brent Casteel and Brian Hernandez Wilson will see increased playing time this week as LaTendresse is out, but Casteel and Hernandez are both expected to play. Wilson will also see time with Brice McCain returning kicks. Wilson has great speed and quickness, and has shown nice hands and surprising route running ability in practice. He will most likely split time with Derrek Richards at LaTendresse's position, and rotate with Casteel and Hernandez at the H-receiver.

RB Lynell Hamilton: - A prototypical NFL back, Hamilton can do everything well. He is a powerful runner who has the speed to score from anywhere on the field and is agile enough to make defenders miss. Hamilton is also a good receiver out of the backfield, and is 3rd on the team with 16 receptions. Hamilton is also a great blocker, adept at picking up the free defender and giving O'Connell added time to find his receivers.

LB Spencer Toone: - Toone is off to another nice season, albeit quietly. He leads the team and is second in the conference (23rd nationally) with 62 tackles, including 2 tackles for loss and a sack. Toone is a great combination of size, speed, and instincts. He is always around the ball. He will need to play well this week to contain the speed of Hamilton and O'Connell.

LB Freddie Keiaho: - San Diego State's and the conference's leading tackler with 66, including 4.5 tackles for loss (tied for team lead), Keiaho also returned a fumble 39 yards to set up a field goal in last week's game against UNLV. The former running back has great speed and a knack for finding the ball carrier.

CB Eugene Oates: - Oates has been solid this season, not making many big plays but not allowing many either. He does a nice job in coverage but can struggle at times in run support. His skills as a cover man will be needed this week as the Aztecs have probably the best receiving corps in the conference. Oates and the rest of the secondary will need to play well and not give up big plays in the passing game. - One of the top safeties in the country. Earned MWC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance against Arizona.

S Marcus Demps: - Considered one of the best players on the team by the coaching staff, Demps is a terrific athlete who can also play corner. An active player, Demps has 32 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss - including a sack and a forced fumble - to go along with 2 interceptions and 2 passes defended.

P Louie Sakoda: - Sakoda has done an excellent job of punting all year long. His averages may not look great (37.6 yards gross, 34.3 net), but he has placed 17 of his 34 punts inside the 20 yard line. 10 of his punts have been fair caught, with only 2 touchbacks. He has done a decent job on kickoffs as well, with his kicks reaching the 3 yard line on average, with 8 touchbacks on 23 kicks. He has done an excellent job of helping Utah win the field position battle, and will be asked to do the same against San Diego State.

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