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October 15, 2010

Cowboys up next

Utah (5-0, 2-0 MWC) will take a short trip northeast, taking on Wyoming (2-4, 0-2) in perhaps their last trip to Laramie. Utah has been in the same conference as the Cowboys since 1938, and the series is the third longest in Utah history. The game kicks off at 4 pm Mountain time and will be televised on the Mtn channel. The game can also be heard on radio in Utah on ESPN 700 AM (Internet streaming of the radio broadcast can be found on the ESPN 700 website). Radio pregame coverage begins two hours before kickoff.

In their last game, the Utes used a historic quarter to run away from Iowa State 68-27. No opponent in Iowa State history had scored that many points in Ames. The Utes simply dominated every phase of the game from the second quarter on, outscoring the Cyclones 31-0 in the decisive quarter and 58-13 in the final three stanzas. Utah combined to put up more than 1,000 yards between offense, kick and punt returns, and interception return yards. Utah did turn the ball over twice which led to 14 points for the Cyclones, but Utah shrugged off their mistakes and executed flawlessly for the final 45 minutes. Utah's 31 second quarter points were the most points in a quarter since quarter records started being kept in 1968.

Utah will be the fourth top 10 opponent Wyoming has played in a brutal schedule. Wyoming played then-fourth ranked Texas, hosted Boise State, and last week Wyoming was shut out by fifth-ranked TCU 45-0. Missing their starting quarterback, the Cowboys had no chance against a ferocious Horned Frogs defense. Wyoming struggled all game on offense, gaining just 191 yards, picking up just eight first downs, and failing to convert on all ten of their third downs. TCU on the other hand could not be stopped, gaining an absurd 9.3 yards per play en route to their 45 points and 578 yards of total offense. Quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels did not play against TCU, but will play against Utah. Carta-Samuels will not be wearing his usual number, but will instead don number 12 to honor freshman linebacker Ruben Narcisse. Narcisse was killed in an automobile accident in early September, and each week a different Cowboy has worn his number 12.

Utah holds a 50-31-1 series lead, but the Cowboys hold a 20-18 edge in Laramie. Utah has won the last three games in the series, outscoring the Cowboys 112-17 in those three games. Even with their recent success, Kyle Whittingham refuses to allow his players or staff to overlook the Cowboys, especially in the hazardous conditions Laramie can have.

"There have been some great battles in Laramie," Whittingham said in his weekly media conference. "They smacked us around a few years back in 2006. There have been some right-down-to-the-wire games up there. I remember as a player going up and playing in snowstorms. In 1980, they beat us there when Jimmy Mac was our quarterback. That was a miserable experience.Laramie can be a difficult place to play and we need to have a good week of preparation."

Utah Run Offense vs Wyoming Run Defense
Utah's running game has feasted on poor run defenses, and the results are an efficient run game and a balanced offensive attack. Utah running backs are averaging 5.5 yards per carry. The run game has been so efficient that the Utes have allowed just 11 tackles for loss, a number that leads the nation. Utah ran all over Iowa State, piling up 239 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata combined for 129 yards and three touchdowns. The two-headed monster at running back continues to pay dividends for Utah as both Wide and Asiata have a near perfect split of their carries. Wide continues to be the more productive back, leading the Utes in yards and touchdowns, but Asiata is not far behind. Wide was fantastic against the Cyclones, rushing for 71 yards and two touchdowns while adding another 46 yards on four catches. Ball security has been a problem, and Wide leads the Utes with three fumbles, all of them lost. Utah running backs have five of Utah's eight fumbles this season.

Utah faces yet another poor run defense this week. Wyoming gives up nearly 250 yards per game on the ground at 5.4 yards per carry. Up front, the Cowboys are young and extremely undersized, especially in the middle. Wyoming's four man tackle rotation averages just 272 pounds, with three players under 270 pounds. Backup tackle Eric Lawson is the heaviest body at 295 pounds, and recently switched from the offensive line to defensive tackle. Starters Mike Purcell and Patrick Mertens are small (both 269 pounds), but have not been able to use their quickness to their advantage. Neither commands a double team up front, and neither are able to hold up linemen from reaching the second level on combo blocks, creating large gaps for backs to hit between the tackles. As a result, safeties Chris Prosinski and Shamiel Gary are making a lot of tackles. Utah's offensive line and running game should have few problems against the Cowboys.

Wyoming Run Offense vs Utah Run Defense
Wyoming's run offense is virtually non-existent. The Cowboys are last in the country in rushing yards per game (69.2) and yards per carry (2.2). Wyoming's offensive line has problems getting any kind of movement on the defensive line, and can't get off blocks to get to the linebackers. Running backs Alvester Alexander and Nehemie Kankolongo have not shown any ability to do much with what little space they are given. Wyoming's best running threat might be Carta-Samuels. The mobile quarterback played well against the Utes a year ago, throwing for 121 yards and catching a 30 yard touchdown pass. Carta-Samuels ran for 44 yards on seven carries in that game, though he only ended up with nine net yards after getting sacked five times for a loss of 35 yards.

Utah's run defense showed some vulnerability for the first time against Iowa State. Utah surrendered season highs in yards, yards per carry, and rushing touchdowns against the Cyclones. Though 77 of Iowa State's 170 yards came against Utah's bench in the fourth quarter, the 93 yards and 3.7 yards per carry in the first three quarters were not up to par. The zone-read and zone blocking of the Cyclones made it difficult for the Utah line to disrupt running plays and dominate the line of scrimmage as easily as the first four games of the season. Wyoming will look to do some of the same things, including lining up their offensive linemen farther apart than normal. The wide offensive line splits the Cyclones used made it difficult for Utah's defensive tackles to hold down multiple gaps inside, creating some space for the running backs between the tackles. Sealver Siliga and Dave Kruger will find more teams splitting their linemen out unless and until they find ways to counter attack. The game within the game in the trenches will be interesting to watch in the next few weeks.

Utah Pass Offense vs Wyoming Pass Defense
Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn has shown no ill effects from missing two games with a thumb injury. All Wynn has done since coming back is complete over 75 percent of his passes and lead an offense that has put up 124 points in those two games. Wynn threw for 325 yards against Iowa State, a regular season career high. Wynn also spread the ball around, completing passes to eight different receivers, including nine completions to running backs and tight ends. Jereme Brooks was the focus of Iowa State's pass defense, so Wynn took the time to go through his reads and find the open receiver. DeVonte Chrisopher caught six passes for 124 yards, and pulled in a 32-yard touchdown pass from fellow wide-out Shaky Smithson. Smithson had a big game, including a 61-yard touchdown pass from Wynn. Walk-on receiver Fatu Moala recorded his first career catch against Iowa State, pulling in a 13-yard catch from Wynn midway through the second quarter.

Wyoming's pass defense has been surprisingly poor, though most teams have been content to run the ball against the Cowboys. Brothers Marcell Gipson and Tashaun Gipson are very good corners, while Prosinski and Gary are excellent coverage safeties. Though the secondary looks good on paper, the results on the field have not been pretty. Though Wyoming gives up just 215 yards per game through the air, they give up big plays and touchdowns while not forcing many turnovers. Wyoming's pass defense has allowed seven touchdown passes with just two intereceptions. The biggest problem has been getting pressure on the quarterback. Outside of defensive end Gabe Knapton, Wyoming has no one able to generate a consistent pass rush. Wyoming's five sacks on the season places them near the very bottom nationally, and only ahead of New Mexico's four sacks in the conference. Quarterbacks have had plenty of time to find receivers, as even the best secondaries struggle covering receivers over time.

Wyoming Pass Offense vs Utah Pass Defense
Carta-Samuels has struggled in his second season, mainly due to a complete lack of playmakers around him. Carta-Samuels is completing a high percentage of his passes, but in Wyoming's system of quick, short passes that rely on yards after the catch, the results have been underwhelming. Carta-Samuels has tried to force the issue in order to put points on the board, and as a result has thrown five interceptions to just four touchdowns. Poor offensive line play is part of the issue, as the Cowboys have allowed 13 sacks on the season. David Leonard is the favorite target, catching 22 passes on the season. Leonard is not a downfield threat, and he has not been able to use his size and strength to break tackles as he did a year ago. When Carta-Samuels has time to look deep, Zach Bolger has been a productive downfield threat, gaining 236 yards on 13 catches.

Utah's pass defense has been very good, ranking in the top 15 nationally in completion percentage, yards per attempt, pass efficiency, and touchdowns allowed. Utah's secondary plays tight coverage, and all are above average tacklers, keeping yards per catch at a minimum. Though the Utes picked off two passes against the Cyclones, the team could do a better job of forcing turnovers in the passing game. Brandon Burton is the star of the secondary, and has done such a complete job of shutting down his receiver that teams do not throw his way, especially when the Utes are in man coverage. Expect that to change against Wyoming, as the Cowboys will challenge Burton against the 6-foot-4, 211 pound Leonard. Burton recorded his second career interception last week, returning the ball inside the 20 yard line and setting up a field goal. Lamar Chapman has been his consistent, solid self, while Conroy Black played perhaps his best game as a Ute last week, breaking up three passes and recording a sack. Safety Justin Taplin-Ross finally recorded his first career interception after coming very close multiple times this season.

Special Teams
Outside of kicker Ian Watts and punter Austin McCoy, Wyoming has not been good on special teams. Leonard's lack of speed makes him a less than dangerous punt return man, and Wyoming's best kick returner to date is linebacker Ghaali Muhammad, averaging a pedestrian 23 yards per return. Coverage has been shaky for the Cowboys, especially on punts, as they give up almost 14 yards per return.

Shaky punt coverage only means more chances for Shaky Smithson to end up on the highlight reel. Smithson needs one punt return touchdown to tie Steve Smith for Utah's single season record. Smithson came close against Iowa State, returning a punt 78 yards when he needed 80 for the touchdown. The 78-yard effort was Smithson's longest return of the season, and perhaps his most exciting as he ran into his own blocker, spun past a defender, and cut back across the field twice before stumbling to the ground. Reggie Dunn put his speed on display, returning a kick from deep in the endzone for a 104-yard touchdown (100 yards officially). Utah's special teams play has been outstanding in every unit since having a punt blocked against New Mexico.

Simply put, Whittingham has the better team and better coaching staff than his friend Dave Christensen. Christensen is struggling in his second year due to a lack of overall talent and experience. Wyoming plays many freshmen and sophomores, and the team simply does not have the talent to cover for missed assignments. Christensen and his young staff are just beginning a long rebuilding project but should be able to return Wyoming football to respectability given enough time.

Turnovers will be the key to this game, as both teams have been generously giving away the football. Wyoming has been an equal opportunity giver, with a near even split of fumbles and interceptions, while Utah simply fumbles away their opportunities to score even more points. Wyoming will need Utah to be especially generous with the football for them to have a chance in this game.

Weather could also be an issue, as it always is on the high plains of Laramie. The forecast calls for clear skies and temperatures in the high 50's for most of the game. Winds in Laramie are unpredictable, and gusty conditions are common and can play tricks with the football. A blustery day could keep scores down and the game closer than it should be.

Utah should have no problems putting away Wyoming. Utah's offense is willing to take their time and probe the defense before deciding which weakness to exploit, which explains the slower starts and the second quarter outbursts. That being said, barring turnovers the Utes should quickly get a comfortable lead before putting the game out of reach by halftime. Utah's reserves will again see plenty of playing time in the second half as the Utes head back to Salt Lake with a 6-0 record.

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