Utah tries to avoid an 0-3 hole in Pac-12 play when it travels to Stanford
Utah's Kyle Whittingham and Stanford's David Shaw are the Pac-12 Conference's two longest-tenured head coaches at their respective stops. Each has delivered some outstanding seasons and memorable moments to his program, employing two similar styles.
Their paths have crossed only three times since Utah joined the conference in 2011, but each of the previous installments resulted in a hotly contested game. Utah's upset of Stanford in 2013 helped to deny the Cardinal a shot at the BCS Championship, and the Utes scored another victory in overtime a year later. Last season's three-point defeat of the Utes marked Shaw's first head-to-head win against Whittingham and was the third game decided by a touchdown or less.
Expect more of the same this season, with both teams employing the same hard-nosed defensive style that has been their hallmark under their head coaches.
Utah at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Stanford -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Bryce Love's availability
In last year's matchup, running back Bryce Love was contained much of the game — until he wasn't. Love broke off a 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that effectively made the difference, demonstrating to Utah what plenty of other opponents learned about the back in 2017: He just needs one opening.
How many touches Love will be able to take, however, is in less of a certainty.
Love came out in the fourth quarter of Stanford's loss at Notre Dame last week, at which point the Stanford offense was rendered ineffective. The Cardinal have been able to spring big plays in the passing game this season — typically quarterback K.J. Costello finding wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside in a mismatch — but those opportunities typically come as a result of defenses keying in on Love.
David Shaw said earlier this week that he was optimistic about Love's availability.
2. Can Utah get it going offensively?
The Pac-12 South has yet to have a dominant team emerge in the early going, so the race is wide open for Utah to make its first run to the conference championship. An 0-3 hole isn't insurmountable — the South sent three-loss USC to Santa Clara in 2015, for example — but it's a difficult spot for the Utes to be in.
The unifying theme in tough losses to Washington and Washington State is that the Utah defense played outstanding — more than well enough to win. Against Washington State last week, in particular, the Utes shut down the explosive Cougars for two quarters. But with the offense unable to capitalize in either contest, Utah experienced two heartbreaking ways to lose: unsuccessfully clawing from behind against Washington, and surrendering a late-game touchdown after squandered chances to shut the door at Washington State.
Running back Zack Moss has gotten it going to some extent, hitting the century mark last week and scoring a touchdown in his fourth consecutive game. But beyond wide receiver Britain Covey, Utah's passing game has been lacking. That lack of diversity in the offense is especially troubling when faced with a defense as well-rounded as Stanford's. Joey Alfieri and Jovan Swann will provide consistent pressure on Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley, and while he's capable of breaking off gains with his feet, he'll have to deliver in the passing game to give Utah any chance of upset.
3. Special teams game-changers
Utah and Stanford have been two of the more consistent programs in the Pac-12 when it comes to special teams. This year is no exception. Punters Jake Bailey (Stanford) and Mitch Wishnowsky are two of the nation's best. In a game with two great defenses, the battle of field position becomes paramount. So, too, is getting points on the board by any means necessary. Stanford's Jet Toner is reliable at placekicker. Utah's Matt Gay has struggled at 4-of-7 on the season. That could play a role.
Similarly, a big return from Utah's Covey could be crucial. Covey had what would have been a game-sealer at Washington State overturned on a suspect block-in-the-back penalty.
The fact that every previous Stanford-Utah game in the Shaw-Whittingham era has gone down to the wire isn't a coincidence. These teams' similar make-up results in hard-fought struggles for field position, in which a single play can make the difference.
Both JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Britain Covey can provide just such a play in the passing game. Bryce Love is best equipped to deliver the game-changing moment — if he's healthy. His presence in the lineup changes the complexion dramatically.
Ultimately, Stanford has shown a more balanced offense this season, which should be enough to survive another tough test from the Utes.
Prediction: Stanford 24, Utah 20