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November 11, 2005Two straight wins have salvaged Utah's (5-4, 3-3 MWC) hopes of a winning season and bowl berth after three straight losses threatened to wreck Kyle Whittingham's inaugural season as Utah's coach. This week, Utah faces conference foe New Mexico (5-4, 3-3) in a game that the winning team is guaranteed a winning season and becomes bowl eligible.
Last week, Utah defeated Wyoming 43-13 in a game that was close until Utah scored twice in the closing minutes of the first half and poured it on in the second. Utah swept the conference Player of the Week honors, with first year quarterback Brian Johnson winning the Offensive Player of the Week, junior safety Eric Weddle winning Defensive Player of the Week and senior kicker Dan Beardall winning Special Teams Player of the Week. Beardall received another honor this week, being named one of the twenty semifinalists for the Lou Grouza award, given annually to the nation's top kicker.
New Mexico is coming off a bye week, which is usually bad news for the opposition. Under head coach Rocky Long, New Mexico is 8-0 after a bye week (not counting the week of cancelled games after September 11th, 2001). However, they have yet to play Utah after a bye week. In their last game, the Lobos lost to Colorado State 35-25 after building a 22-5 2nd quarter lead, and a having a 25-18 lead going into the 4th quarter. They will also be without the services of starting quarterback Kole McKamey who will be sitting out this week after aggravating an injury sustained a month ago against Wyoming.
New Mexico - What to Watch:
Offensive Line: Consistently one of the top lines in the conference year in and year out. Always big, strong, and athletic enough to pull and trap effectively. Led by standout center Ryan Cook, considered by many to be the best lineman in the conference and one of the best centers in the country, the Lobos line this year is as good as ever. They are a big reason Lobo running back DonTrell Moore is one of the best backs in the country.
Defensive Scheme: The Lobos like to mix things up. They are said to run a 3-3-5 defense similar to Air Force and BYU, but they are similar in name only. They will mix in various defensive looks and players, sometime going with a 3-4 look. It is a very difficult scheme to read, and the players are athletic enough to give one look to the offense and run to a completely different look just before or just after the snap. They have the top rushing defense in the conference, and are 3rd in total defense.
Cornerbacks: New Mexico has a good corps of corners in Gabe Fulbright, Jerrell Malone, and Mike Powdrell. Neither Fulbright nor Powdrell are exactly big (Fulbright is 5-foot-10, 169 pounds while Powdrell is 5-foot-10, 183 pounds), but they are good in coverage (Fulbright leads the conference with 5 interceptions, Powdrell has 3) and will come up and make tackles in the running game. Malone has good size (6-foot-1, 189 pounds) and quickness, but not quite the ball skills of Fulbright or Powdrell.
Special Teams: Kicker Kenny Byrd is also a Lou Grouza semifinalist. He has hit 12 of 14 field goals on the season with a long of 46 yards. He has missed 3 extra points, though. He has a strong leg, as 27 of his 56 kickoffs have been touchbacks. Punter Tyler Gauss also has a strong leg, and has a 40.3 yard average. New Mexico does struggle in the return game, with Fulbright the primary kick and punt return man. The Lobos are only averaging 17.7 yards per kick return and 8.7 yards per punt return. Opponents have returned 3 kicks for touchdowns (2 punt, 1 kickoff).
Utah - What to Watch:
Offensive Line - Two great games in a row for a unit that has been much maligned amongst the fan base. They face a defense with two great defensive linemen in seniors Marcus Parker and Evroy Thompson, as well as a confusing defensive scheme that hides where the additional pressure will be coming from very well. The unit will need to work well together to give Utah's running game the needed wholes and to give Brian Johnson time to throw.
Secondary - A week after shutting down the conference's best receiver in Jovon Bouknight, safety Eric Weddle will start again at corner, covering Hank Baskett. Sophomore Steve Tate will play Weddle's safety position when Weddle moves over to corner, but expect Weddle to move around a lot, playing several positions. Eugene Oates and Casey Evans round out the sxpected starting secondary. Sophomore Ryan Smith, bothered by an ankle injury and ineffectiveness, should see some playing time this week, as well as true freshman Brice McCain and junior Shaun Harper.
Defensive Line - Like the offensive line, the defensive line has really come alive the last few games. Martail Burnett has 2 sacks in the last 2 games, finally showing the pass rushing threat he was supposed to bring from the start of the season. Burnett is playing football more than thinking now, as the sophomore is learning how to play his 4th position in 5 years. (WR in high school, recruited as a WR/S, moved to S his freshman year (2003), moved to LB and finally DE as a redshirt freshman in 2004). Kelly Talavou has also gotten more active, and along with Soli Lefiti the starting unit has put good pressure on the offensive line. Kite Afeaki has also played well as the primary backup at all positions. They will need to play well again against a very good Lobo line.
4th Quarter execution - After struggling to score and stop the opposition from scoring all season, Utah finally outscored and outplayed a team in the 4th quarter, holding Wyoming scoreless while scoring 10 points of their own in a 43-13 win. The highlight of the 4th quarter was a 10 play, 75 yard drive that took over 4 minutes off the clock and ended in a 1 yard touchdown pass from Brian Johnson to Ameen Shaheen, putting Utah up 40-13. Utah followed that up with two more long drives that combined to take another 9 minutes off the clock. It was by far Utah's most complete game of the year. They will need to play well again in this game, as it should be a close game that could come down to who plays better at the end.
Players to watch:
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