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November 6, 2008

TCU vs. Utah for MWC and more?

No. 8 Utah (9-0, 5-0 MWC) hosts No. 12 TCU in a Thursday night clash of potential BCS Busters. The winner will control their own destiny in the race to play in a BCS bowl game and earn the millions of dollars that goes with it while the loser will not only be out of that race, but will be relegated to a minor bowl played well before the New Year.

Thursday night will feature a high stakes game between two solid, evenly matched football teams that are remarkably similar. Both teams emphasize running the ball and stopping the run, both are very aggressive on defense and both have great speed.

With a game featuring two of the stingiest defenses in the country, the game could be decided by special teams, where the Utes have a decided advantage. Ben Vroman continues to lead the nation in touchbacks on kickoffs by a large margin, whereas TCU barely registers with less than a touchback per game. Even when Vroman's kicks are returned, teams are starting about the 21 yard line. TCU's opponents are starting drives about the 30 yard line. Nine yards may not sound like much, but in a game of field position it means a great deal. Vroman's kicks neutralize one of TCU's main threats, as they are 2nd nationally in kick returns. Utah's return man David Reed, on the other hand, has shown he is a threat to score on kickoff returns.

Louie Sakoda gets the edge no matter what he does: place-kicking or punting. TCU has missed five PAT's and has had two kicks blocked. Punting has been inconsistent for TCU as they are only netting 33 yards per punt. Aiona Key has been a dynamic game-changer on special teams, blocking two punts and a field goal while TCU has only blocked one kick a punt on the season.

The great equalizer to Utah's special teams play is TCU's ability to force turnovers. The Horned Frogs lead the nation in turnover margin and have forced 26 turnovers while Utah has been a very generous offense, turning the ball over 16 times. While the Utes have cut down on the number of turnovers lately, they still have issues at times with ball security. If Utah's offensive line and backs can keep the pass rush from getting to Brian Johnson, that will go a long way to cutting down opportunities for TCU to force turnovers.

The biggest factor in the game might be the weather. The forecast calls for frigid temperatures and wind chills that could push the mercury down into the teens or low twenties. Temperature for kickoff should be in the mid-upper 30's, dropping near freezing by the time the game ends. With winds near approaching 10 miles per hour or even higher, the cold and wind could have a significant impact on the game. A cold football is harder to throw, harder to hold on to, and much harder to get distance on kicks. How well the teams cope with the elements will be a factor to watch, especially with most of TCU's players coming from the warmer parts of Texas.

Players to Watch

TCU Utah
Jerry Hughes - DE: Any talk of TCU begins and ends with the former running back. Hughes has good size, great speed, and an even better closing burst to get to the quarterback. Hughes leads the nation by a comfortable margin with 14 sacks on the year, a MWC record. Brice McCain - CB: Keeping Young from getting open will go a long way to stopping TCU, and McCain will play the largest role as Young usually lines up on QB Andy Dalton's right. McCain has been quietly solid this year and has only gotten better as the season has worn on.
Jason Phillips - LB: Nearly as good a player as Hughes, Phillips is also a disruptive force in TCU's 4-2-5 scheme. Phillips has recorded 60 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. Quick and physical, Phillips is a key cog in the Horned Frogs terrific run defense. Kenape Eliapo - DT: Eliapo has been out for several weeks with an injury, returning for the last game against New Mexico. Utah's best combination of size, strength, and experience at the tackle position is Eliapo, and he needs to get back into the rhythm of the defense for Utah to contain TCU's power running game. Eliapo played a dozen snaps against the Lobos, but look for him to double that number against the Horned Frogs.
Cody Moore - DT: Arguably the most important member of TCU's defense. Moore is great at forcing double teams at the point of attack, freeing up linebackers to make plays against the run or Hughes to get pressure on the quarterback. Moore is no slouch himself when it comes to making plays in the backfield as he has 9 TFL and 5 sacks. Robert Johnson - S: Utah's last line of defense will need to stay at home and not allow big plays over the top of the defense. TCU will do a lot of things to attack Utah's aggressive front, including taking shots and testing the safeties.
Jeremy Kerley - WR: Kerley nearly beat BYU all by himself, as the Cougars had no answer stopping him when he took the direct snap from the quarterback position. Kerley has been a better runner than receiver, but he is a threat to score whenever the ball is in his hands. Kerley is also one of the best punt returners in the country averaging 14 yards per return. David Reed - WR: As a return man, Reed can make life much easier for Utah's offense and he will have opportunities to return kicks as TCU is not good at getting the ball out of the endzone. Reed's debut as a punt returner did not go well as he lost a punt against New Mexico. He will be back returning punts again and needs to make the most of those opportunities. And as Utah's lone true deep threat Reed can bring the big play ability at wideout that Utah has been lacking.
Jimmy Young - WR: By far the go-to-guy in the passing game, Young is TCU's passing game. Young has caught nearly a third of all of TCU's receptions while accounting for almost half of TCU's receiving yards and touchdowns. Dustin Hensel - T: Hensel has been hot-or-cold as a pass protector, and he will need to be hot against TCU. Hughes lines up mainly on the right side of the offense and will be opposite Hensel the majority of the game. Look for Utah to shift the TE or RB to Hensel's side to help out on Hughes, and look for TCU to counter by bringing pressure from the secondary off the opposite tackle. If Hensel can hold his own, Utah will find gaps in coverage to attack the defense. If not, TCU could end up with a double-digit sacks on the evening.

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