After scratching back to .500 Saturday versus the reeling Pittsburgh Panthers, the University of Utah football has another monkey yet to shake off; the apparently ever-elusive first Pac-12 win.
The problem is that Jeff Tedford's Cal team is in the same boat at 0-3 in conference play and 3-3 overall. Both teams dropped contests to conference foes USC and Washington, while Utah lost it's third conference game to Arizona State, while the Golden Bears' third loss came at the hands of a rolling Oregon Ducks squad.
In a rematch of the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl, Utah and Cal will square off at AT&T Park, rather than Cal's historic Memorial Stadium which is undergoing renovation. AT&T Park, then known as SBC Park, was the site of another Ute bowl game victory, as Utah beat Georgia Tech 38-10 in 2005.
In that contest, both teams shared the same sideline, in a rare college football occurrence. Logistically speaking, the field has been rearranged so that both teams will face each other on opposing sidelines in contrast to the last time the Utes visited.
Ranking the Utes
After an impressive outing last weekend at Pittsburgh, Utah now ranks 13th in the nation and 2nd in the Pac-12 in rush defense and 25th in nation and 2nd in the Pac-12 in total defense. The Utes also rank second in the conference in scoring defense (20.5) and 28th in the country in the same category. In pass efficiency defense, Utah ranks 2nd in the conference and 38th nationally and 3rd in the conference in pass defense (231.8) and tied for 76th in the country.
Individually, several Utes rank in the NCAA Top 50, most notably running back John White is third in the Pac-12 and 16th nationally in average rush yards per game with 111.8.
Hybrid linebacker and defensive end Trevor Reilly is tied for second in the conference and 27th nationally in sacks (0.67) and tied for 29th in the nation and tied for first in the conference in tackles for loss (1.33 pg).
After a glorious 4-4 performance Saturday at Pitt, previously struggling Coleman Petersen has turned his season around as he is tied for 34th nationally in field goals per game (1.33), and fifth in the Pac-12 conference.
Junior speedster Reggie Dunn ranks 37th in the nation in kickoff returns (24.8), which ties him for 4th in the Pac-12 conference.
Sophomore Brian Blechen is tied for fourth in the conference, and tied for 47th in interceptions per game with 0.33 per game.
Xs and Os
Utah faces a multi-dimensional Cal offense which ranks 33rd in the nation, averaging 436.5 yards per game, and 16th in the nation in passing offense with a 299.33 average per game.
The biggest reason for that ranking is the performance of a wide receiving duo in sophomore receiver Keenan Allen and junior Marvin Jones. Allen is currently leading the nation in receiving yards per game with a 138 yard average and 8th in the nation in receptions per game at 8.67. Meanwhile, Jones is ranked 36th in the nation in the same category with 88.33 yards per game and is tied for 43rd in the country with 5.83.
Big plays have been a huge key for Cal this season, as the Golden Bears have 37 plays of 20+ yards already this season, a fact that could prove a stiff challenge for the Ute defense who have yet to be very challenged down field so far this season.
Quarterback Zac Maynard creates a challenge similar to what Montana State's DaNarius McGhee did, as both are scrambling, mobile quarterbacks who can legitimately gain yardage with their feet or extend plays. The Utes held McGhee in check, but the challenge looks to be greater with Maynard as he has top-tier athletes at his disposal at all positions.
"[Cal has] talent at the skill positions. They're fast in the secondary, they're fast at wide receiver. It's a pro-style attack with a very accomplished offensive line," observed Whittingham. "Defensively it's a good scheme. They play physical up front, and they're very sound."
Cottonwood High School product and Cal running back Isi Sofele is the Golden Bears' premier running back, and is 46th in the nation and fifth in the conference in rushing yards per game, averaging 90.50. Another local and former Utah recruit Keni Kaufusi also plays for Cal as a defensive lineman.
Considering the experience of the Cal offensive line, Sofele should have success, as they combine for 115 starts between them, though left tackle Mitchell Schwartz accounts for 44 of those. Center Dominic Galas won the starting job this season, and is heading into his 7th start of the season against the Utes.
Utah's head coach Kyle Whittingham had nothing but high praise for the caliber of Cal's athletes, especially Sofele, who was recruited by Utah.
"He's a good player. We offered Isi way back when when he was coming out of Cottonwood High School," recalled Whittingham. "He wasn't ready to make a decision, and we subsequently filled up before he decided where he was going to go. We liked him. There was nothing we didn't like about him."
Defensively, Cal boasts the best pass defense in the conference, allowing an average 222.8 yards per game to opposing offenses, and is third in the Pac-12 in total defense which is good for 64th nationally. Cal's rush defense ranks 45th nationally and fifth in the conference, giving up an average of 132.67 yards per game. They also rank 23rd in the nation in tackles for loss, averaging 7.33 a game and are tied for 27th in sacks 2.5 per game.
Linebacker Mychal Kendricks leads a talented linebacker crew and is the heart and should of the Cal defense. Kendricks also leads the Pac-12 in tackles with 51, though Utah's Chaz Walker is right behind, tied for 2nd with 50.
Bumps and Bruises
Utah took another blow on the offensive side this week with the loss of tight end Dallin Rogers after an injury suffered at Pitt. Rogers will miss the remainder of the season. Quarterback Jordan Wynn has also been knocked out for the season, and will undergo surgery on his non-throwing shoulder on Thursday. Safety Keith McGill has also injured a shoulder, and has also been knocked out for the season.
Wide receiver Devonte Christopher is questionable for the showdown in the Bay, as is linebacker Jacoby Hale (concussion) and running back Tauni Vakapuna remains questionable as well.
Utah will attempt to get it's first-ever Pac-12 game win Saturday at 5 PM MST as they prepare to face off against the Golden Bears and try to even up the series at 4-4. Cal leads the series by a one game margin, 4-3 though the Utes have won two in a row.