This is Part 9 of my “First Look” series, in which I take a quick peek at each of the Air Force football team’s 2010 opponents. We move this week to the Falcons’ Week 9 opponent – Utah.
Coach: Kyle Whittingham
2009 Record: 10-3 (6-2, 3rd in Mountain West Conference)
2009 vs. AF: Utah 23, Air Force 16 (OT)
2009 in a Sentence: The Utes didn’t drop off too much after going 13-0 and finishing No. 2 in the country in 2008; In 2009 they went 10-3 – with their only losses coming to eventual league champ TCU, Pac-10 champ Oregon (by seven) and BYU (in overtime) – and ended the season ranked No. 18 in the nation.
Off/Def Starters Back: 8/4
Roster Report: Utah could have one of the strongest offenses in the conference with four returning starters on the offensive line (all of whom weigh 300 pounds or more), an up-and-coming quarterback (sophomore Jordan Wynn) and a returning first-team all-conference running back (Eddie Wide).
And that doesn’t even include the Utes’ tank of a back, Matt Asiata, who missed most of last season with a knee injury.
The offensive line is led by senior left guard Caleb Schlauderaff and senior center Zane Taylor, both of whom were All-MWC second-team selections in 2009. And the backfield will be stocked with quality runners.
Wide was forced into duty after Asiata went down, and he responded with an all-conference campaign, rushing for 1,069 yards. The 5-foot-11, 229-pound Asiata, who led the Utes in rushing in 2008 (707 yards, 12 touchdowns) was leading the league in rushing (101.3 yards per game) and the nation in carries (71) last season when he went down with his injury early in the fourth game. And then there’s sophomore Sausan Shakerin, who gained 100 yards against New Mexico and has flashed outstanding potential.
“We feel very good about our stable of backs,” Whittingham said.
“We’ll give them all an opportunity (in the fall), and it will be a three-horse race. … Those three guys will get the bulk of the (repetitions). If they all produce and do great, they all will get carries. If somebody separates himself, then the carries will be divvied out accordingly.”
The key to the offense, however, likely is the 6-1, 195-pound Wynn.
He started last season as a backup to junior college transfer Terrance Cain (who was at the helm when the Utes edged the Falcons in Salt Lake City).
But Wynn replaced Cain in the second half of the Utes’ game against Wyoming the following week, led Utah to a come-from-behind victory over the Cowboys and earned the starting job for the final five games of the season. In those games he got to face eventual conference champ TCU and BYU, Utah’s arch rival. Though the Utes lost both those games, Wynn earned valuable experience in high-pressure contests.
Wynn capped the season by leading Utah to a 37-27 victory over California in the Poinsettia Bowl. He earned Offensive Most Valuable Player honors in the contest after completing 26-of-36 passes for 338 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He finished 2009 104-for-179 for 1,329 yards, eight touchdowns and four picks.
Wynn won’t have all-league receiver David Reed, who graduated after grabbing 81 passes for 1,188 yards and five touchdowns last season, and “wide receiver is still a question mark,” Whittingham said.
“We’ve got to have some development take place this summer and into fall camp to get to where we need to be there.”
Still, Jereme Brooks is a returning starter, and Whittingham said rising sophomores Luke Matthews and Griffin McNabb, a walk-on, both shined in the spring.
“We have a lot of talent and weapons,” Wynn told The Salt Lake Tribune. “If we all play like we are capable of, we are going to be explosive.”
While the Utes’ offense seems well-stocked, their defense clearly has some holes to fill. Utah graduated seven starters from last season’s unit that ranked 19th in the nation in total defense (313.9 yards allowed per game) and 23rd in scoring defense (20.2 points allowed per game), including three first-team all-conference players (defensive lineman Koa Misi, linebacker Stevenson Sylvester and safety Robert Johnson) and all of its linebackers.
Still, Utah always seems to be have a solid defensive group, and this year should be no different.
The Utes will be stout up front, as usual, with returning starting tackles Dave Kruger and Sealver Siliga leading a deep unit.
Utah lost all three of its starting linebackers to graduation but returns five with significant game experience, including junior J.J. Williams, who started as a freshman in 2006 and then went on a church mission before rejoining the team last spring.
Sylvester and Johnson will be difficult to replace.
Utah also will return its starting kicker and punter – senior Joe Phillips and punter Sean Sellwood, respectively.
Fast Fact: Utah owns the longest current bowl winning streak in the nation at nine games. Bonus fact: The Utes’ new quarterback coach is former signal-caller Brian Johnson, the winningest quarterback in Utah football history. Johnson won MWC Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2008 when he helped lead the Utes to a 13-0 record.
What Caught My Eye: Utah plays a pretty decent nonconference schedule. The Utes open with Pittsburgh at home on a Thursday night, play host to San Jose State and travel to Iowa State and Notre Dame. For a program that is becoming more of a national player, a game at Notre Dame that is nationally televised on NBC can only help its exposure.
In league play, they get TCU and BYU in Salt Lake City but travel to the academy.
Jake’s Way Too Early Line vs. Air Force: Utah minus-1.5. Air Force gets the Utes at home – but after a trip to Fort Worth to face TCU. That’s a tough two-game stretch.
Still, bank on a great game. Last year’s went to overtime; in 2008 the Utes needed a late interception to seal a 30-23 victory; in 2007 the Falcons used a late goal-line stand to preserve a victory; and in 2006 the Utes won with a walk-off field goal.
Final Thought: As I’m writing this on Monday afternoon, I’m wondering – now that it appears the Big 12 will up staying together, will the Pac-10/11 come after the Utes?