Fall is a beautiful time of year in the Salt Lake valley. The temperature falls from the high 90s to the more comfortable 70s. The leaves change color from green to vibrant red, orange, and yellow. And fans of the team in Provo begin to crawl out of their holes with dreams of tradition, honor, and beating Utah in football. Unfortunately, for those fans, their dreams have been shattered since 2010 as the Utes have won five straight over the Team Down South (TDS). <insert Cougar tears>
This week marks the return of the Holy War, arguably the most contentious college football rivalry in America. The series comes back after taking a two year break while Utah played a home-and-home series with Michigan. Most recently, Utah drew out the Cougars in the Las Vegas Bowl, which the Utah defense dominated the 1st quarter and propelled the Utes to victory. Since that game, the TDS has undergone some major changes in personnel, schemes, and culture. These changes have brought a different vibe to the Holy War for the players and coaches. Let’s take a look at some of the major changes that have taken place.
The biggest change for the TDS, from a non-player standpoint, was head coach Kalani Sitake. Kalani, who played fullback in Provo, got his coaching career started at Southern Utah, and then was hired by Utah coach Kyle Whittingham in 2005 to coach the defensive line. Sitake was promoted to defensive coordinator at Utah in 2009 when Gary Andersen took the head coaching position at Utah State. Kalani left Utah in 2015 in a lateral move to be the defensive coordinator at Oregon State. And, lastly, it was announced that Kalani Sitake would be the Cougars next head coach the night of the loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl last year.
The culture of the Holy War, from a coaching perspective, is dramatically different. Kalani Sitake’s approach to the rivalry is much softer than his predecessor. He and Kyle Whittingham, having coached together for ten years, are close friends and rely on each others advice. It should be interesting to see how that relationship unfolds on the field. I would imagine it would be like LaVell Edwards and Ron McBride in the 90s. Both will want to win the game badly, but they will hug each other after the game is over.
Sitake primarily hired alumni from the school to fill the coordinator and position coaching roles. Alumni such as Ty Detmer (1990 Heisman trophy winner), Ilaisa Tuiaki (former position coach at Utah), and Ed Lamb (former head coach at Southern Utah). Although Kalani may know some of the nuances to Utah’s approach to the rivalry, Utah should have a significant coaching advantage in this game as Utah has the experience of Kyle Whittingham and Dennis Erickson. Kyle and Dennis individually have more coaching experience than nearly the entire TDS coaching staff combined.
The change in coaching staff also brought a change in the offensive scheme for the TDS. Offensive coordinator Ty Detmer changed the Cougar offense from the spread to a west coast offense with the occasional read-option. Taysom Hill (QB) seemed pretty comfortable in that style of offense against Arizona, although he didn’t seem to be as aggressive as he’s been in the past. Jamaal Williams (RB) seemed to have benefited more from the offense scheme change. He played very well against Arizona’s front seven with the help of two to three more blockers on the line of scrimmage. The offensive line, which averages 300+ lbs, pushed around the Arizona defensive line for most of that game. It also should be noted that Arizona’s defense may end up last in the PAC12 this year, but the Cougars played fairly well in their first game in the west coast scheme. The Cougar wide receiver core also had a decent game against Arizona.
The Holy War should be a whole different ball game from week 1 in terms of talent, intensity, and competitiveness. Unlike Arizona, Utah won’t get pushed around by the TDS offensive line. Lowell Lotulelei (DT), Filipo Mokofisi (DT), Kylie Fitts (DE), Hunter Dimick (DE), and PIta Taumoepenu (DE) are arguably a top 3 defensive line in America. Also, the Cougars start two offensive linemen who recently transferred from an FCS program and converted from playing defensive end to left tackle and left guard. During the Arizona game, when Arizona’s defensive line made plays it was against those two FCS transfers. Also, the offensive line for the TDS does not have a ton of depth. This does not bode well against Utah’s 3 deep defensive line. Expect to see Taysom rolling out of the pocket and to the right A LOT.
I expect Utah’s defense to get pressure early and often on Taysom HIll with a 5 defensive line front, press coverage on the wide receivers, and force Hill into making quick decisions under pressure. This also was the game plan during the 1st quarter of the Las Vegas Bowl before Utah went into a zone for the rest of the bowl game. Where Utah could get hurt on defense was somewhat exposed against SUU. The quarterback scramble was effective throughout the game for SUU. This is an obvious threat with Taysom Hill scrambling, but I also expect Utah’s defense to be much more aware of that threat on Saturday.
Jamaal Williams (RB) will also have a more difficult time achieving success against the Utah defensive line. Jamaal is physical, but his offensive line needs to open running lanes in order for him to truly have any success. If Jamaal can get through the defensive front then Utah’s secondary and linebackers need to fill those gaps consistently to prevent Jamaal from getting large chucks of yardage. If Utah can contain the running game, get pressure on the quarterback, and play sound man coverage, I dont expect Ty Detmer and the TDS offense to have much success against the Utah defense. The TDS is trying somewhat to be Stanford, and Stanford is 0-2 against Utah since they joined the PAC12. Kyle Whittingham’s defense is bred to stop a pro-style offense.
Kalani Sitake is a defensive coach so, much like Utah, I expect the defense to be the cornerstone of his team. Sitake has implemented the 4-3 defense that he ran at Utah under Kyle Whittingham, which replaces the 3-4 defense ran by Bronco Mendenhall. Based on what we saw against Arizona, the Cougar defense appears to be undersized, but disciplined in their assignments. Kalani Sitake was also known at Utah to be aggressive with blitz packages and pressures on defense, much like Arizona State. This will put pressure on Utah’s offensive line and running backs to pick up the blitz and give Troy Williams time to throw in the pocket.
The Cougars have some playmakers on defense, primarily Kai Nacua (FS), and Fred Warner (LB). The TDS is also pretty deep at linebacker, while not very deep at defensive line and the secondary. The match-up that I am looking forward to is Utah’s Garett Bolles (LT) against Harvey Langi (DE) for the Cougars. The Cougar coaching staff is pretty high on Langi at the defensive end position (he recently transitioned from running back and then to linebacker), and Bolles was the number one junior college recruit in 2015. It should be a battle between speed and strength.
The Utah offense has been the most inconsistent group in the recent history of the Holy War for either team. This makes the battle between the Utah offense and the TDS defense the most unpredictable match-up. Troy Williams is the X-factor, if he can make plays in the throw game then Utah should be able to move the ball against the Cougar defense and open up the run game. But the biggest question about the Utah offense remains. Will the wide receivers make plays downfield? Tim Patrick (WR) had a good game against Southern Utah, but he’ll need to play even better against the Cougars physical secondary. I know Utah typically uses the run to setup the pass, but I’m guessing they’ll use more of the approach they used against Arizona State by using the pass to setup the run.
The TDS under Kalani Sitake will be hungry to flip the Holy War back in their favor. From what I’ve heard from players, the Cougar coaching staff has been preaching a new beginning and a focus on themselves rather than the Utes. The atmosphere at Rice-Eccles stadium will be electric. The Cougars will be ready to play.
But something will happen once the TDS runs onto that new turf at Rice-Eccles stadium. Will it be the celestial video board? Will it be the PAC12 logo on the field? Will it be the knowledge that iPads were not invented the last time the TDS beat Utah? Whatever it is, I think the Cougars will get down early and they will play tight in front of 45,000 Utah fans. The Utah offensive and defensive lines will dominate the trenches. Ty Detmer will have to take more risks in order to get back in the game and that is where the turnovers will come for the Utah defense, and will seal the deal for the Utes for the sixth time in a row.
The fans of the team in Provo will then crawl back into their hole claiming they won some statistical category and will go back to dreaming about their next opportunity to beat Utah in 2017.
Utah 31 TDS 21