SALT LAKE CITY >> Nothing stung more in a disappointing 2012 season for the Utah Utes than losing to a rival they have dominated for decades.
The Utah State Aggies broke a 12-game losing streak in the series last season when they dealt the Utes a 27-20 overtime loss in Logan. Everything was a mess for Utah in that game.
It all started with a blocked punt that the Aggies recovered for their first touchdown. Before the first half ended, the Utes had lost starting quarterback Jordan Wynn to a career-ending shoulder injury.
The Utes converted just 2 of 17 third downs — one reason Utah could not punctuate a second-half rally with an overtime victory.
“I don’t know if you’re ever going to win a football game going 2 for 17 on third down,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “That’s atrocious. We hope to be much different offensively, much more productive and much more explosive than we were last year.”
To that end, Whittingham brought in new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson to introduce a higher tempo offense. Utah hopes to pair that more potent offense with its traditionally strong defense and exceed expectations in the Pac-12 this season.
Another loss to Utah State, however, could be a barometer for more adversity on the horizon. The Utes are determined to not let the Aggies derail another season.
“The rocks just came down on us,” Utah safety Eric Rowe said. “This year, we’re just trying to set a better tone for the whole season.”
Five things to watch for when Utah and Utah State meet for the 111th time on Thursday in a series that the Utes lead 77-29-4:
1.) GOING FOR TWO: Utah State has not beaten Utah in back-to-back seasons since upsetting the Utes in the season openers in 1996 and 1997. The Aggies have a good shot at doing it again. Chuckie Keeton is back to lead the offense and he will operate behind an offensive line that returns all five starters. On defense, the Aggies return their entire linebacker corps from a year ago: Zach Vigil, Kyler Fackrell and Jake Doughty. They combined for 301 tackles, 21 for loss, and 9.5 sacks.
2.) FAST AND FURIOUS: Utah promises a higher tempo offense after ranking near the bottom of the Pac-12 in several offensive categories a year ago. Travis Wilson will be at the controls again after starting the final seven games at quarterback a year ago. Wilson threw for 1,311 yards and seven touchdowns. He will have his top two receivers back in Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott. The duo combined for 725 yards and six touchdowns on 68 receptions a year ago and they feel confident those numbers can be much higher in 2013. They feel like they have the tools to make the Aggies and other teams work overtime. “With how fast we’re going, I know it’s going to tire defenses out,” Anderson said.
3.) CONTAINING CHUCKIE: Figuring out how to stop Keeton from making plays will be the top priority of the Utah defense. Doing it is easier said than done. As a dual-threat quarterback, he has a knack for extending plays and keeping defenses on their heels. Keeton threw for 3,373 yards and 27 touchdowns last season. He also tallied 619 yards and eight touchdowns on 129 carries. That production only promises to get better in Keeton’s junior campaign. “This is his third season-opener to start,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “You’ll get someone who’s quietly confident, who won’t be nerved up and who won’t be rattled. He’s done it on the road, in those big environments. He’s been there and done it.”
4.) FILLING THE VOID: Both Utah State and Utah will be replacing 1,000 yard rushers in their respective backfields. For the Utes, Kelvin York steps in to fill the spot left by school record holder John White, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2011 and in 2012. York played eight games in 2012 and had 273 yards and three touchdowns on 60 carries. The Aggies will count on Joe Hill to take the reins from Kerwynn Williams, who tallied 1,512 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Hill showed promise with 269 yards and seven touchdowns on 43 carries a year ago.
5.) REILLY TIME: Utah has several holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball. Their secondary returns one starter, Eric Rowe, from last season. That’s one reason why the leadership of Trevor Reilly will mean so much. Reilly will alternate between outside linebacker and defensive end depending on the defensive package used. He was a force while playing with a torn ACL last season. Reilly led Utah with 69 tackles and three forced fumbles in 2012. He also had 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Keeping track of him will be a top priority for Utah State and a key to stopping the Aggies offense for the Utes.