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Stanford Cardinal vs. Utah Utes Preview and Prediction

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Bryce Love

Bryce Love

Can Utah be the team that successfully slows down Stanford running back Bryce Love? That's the question facing the 20th-ranked Utes when the Cardinal travel to Salt Lake City on Saturday.

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Stanford (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12) is getting extra juice on offense from having Love in the backfield. He is the nation's leading rusher, and his 1,088 rushing yards are the fourth-most by any player in FBS history through a season's first five games.

Love will face a big challenge going up against a Utah team that leads the Pac-12 in rushing defense. The Utes (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have allowed just 87.0 yards per game on the ground, and no single player has totaled 100 rushing yards on them this season.

Utah leads the all-time series 4-3 and has beaten Stanford both previous times it faced the Cardinal since joining the Pac-12. The Utes edged the Cardinal 20-17 in double overtime in the most recent game between the two teams in 2014.

Stanford at Utah

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 10:15 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FS1

Spread: Stanford – 5.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Troy Williams could get his first start in 2017

Tyler Huntley has added a dynamic element to Utah's offense since winning the starting quarterback job over Williams (above, right) in fall camp. Huntley has meant everything to the Utes, accounting for 66 percent of Utah’s total offense through four games. The sophomore has generated 1,174 of the team’s 1,771 total yards.

Huntley suffered a shoulder injury against Arizona, however, and left the game in the second quarter. Williams finished out the game, throwing for 131 yards on 9-of-18 passing in the win over the Wildcats. During his weekly press conference on Monday, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said that Huntley's shoulder was still being evaluated and did not say which player would start.

Williams is more than capable of getting the job done if Huntley can't go. The senior threw for 2,757 yards and 15 touchdowns, while completing 53 percent of his passes, a year ago. He ranked fifth among Pac-12 quarterbacks in total passing yards.

Williams handled losing his starting job like a pro. He is usually the last player to leave practice and has worked hard to stay ready for another chance to prove himself.

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"I feel like I just continued to prepare as if I was the starter,” Williams said. “I would say that I did work a little harder. When it came to preparing and things like that, I told myself, 'Now you have to do everything twice as much or three times as much.'”

2. All you need is (Bryce) Love

Making electrifying plays is fast becoming Bryce Love's trademark. The junior running back has made the Cardinal's transition to the post-Christian McCaffrey era much smoother than anyone expected for Stanford's offense.

Love has totaled an unbelievable 1,088 yards on 98 carries over his first five games. He is averaging an out-of-this-world 11.1 yards per carry. To put it in perspective, Love is on pace to total more yardage than Barry Sanders did in 1988 when he rushed for a single-season NCAA record of 2,628 yards. It has turned Love into one of the leading Heisman Trophy contenders this season.

He is coming off his finest performance to date. Love set a school record with 301 rushing yards and ran for three touchdowns on 25 carries in a 34-24 win over Arizona State. He tallied touchdown runs of 61 and 59 yards. It was the seventh straight game in which Love has made at least one touchdown run of 50 yards or longer.

“I'm not saying he's the best one that's been through here, I'm not starting that argument,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said after the win over the Sun Devils. “But, at the same time, I've never seen anything like what happened today. That was unbelievable.”

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3. Can Utah finally cut down on penalties?

One thing you can always expect when Utah and Stanford play each other is a physical, hard-nosed brand of football. Both teams have built their brand around punishing defenses and deliberate ball-control offenses.

In Utah's case this season, aggressive play has led to a higher rate of penalties. The Utes have been penalized nearly twice as often as their opponents through four games — 37 penalties to the opponents' 19. Utah also has racked up 365 penalty yards, while opponents have totaled just 198 penalty yards. Utah ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in penalties per game (9.25) and 12th in penalty yards per game (91.25). Whittingham attributes many of the penalties to mistakes on blocking and tackling and says that the Utes are losing too much yardage from these errors.

“It is concerning,” Whittingham said. “We've really had more than our fair share, and it's our own doing. I'm not making excuses. We've got to play a little cleaner.”

Final Analysis

Utah matches up well with Stanford since the two teams are so similar on offense and defense. The Utes typically make it tough for the Cardinal to move the chains. This time around, the pendulum should swing back in Stanford's favor. Bryce Love is putting together one of the best seasons by a running back in ages and will be a headache even for Utah's stout run defense. The Utes are also struggling to clean up penalties on both sides of the ball. In a close game with the Cardinal, that could prove costly.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

Prediction: Stanford 24, Utah 20

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.