The Utes lost five players to the NFL Draft, including No. 1 pick Alex Smith. Saturday's game with North Carolina will mark the farthest east the Utes (3-1, 1-1 MWC) have traveled to play a football game since 1977. The Tar Heels are the only ACC team Utah has ever faced.
Since 2003, Utah has gone 11-1 in non-conference games. The Utes avoided their first losing streak in three years last Thursday by beating Air Force, 38-35. After the Falcons gained 242 first half yards, Utah allowed just 42 in the third quarter. But Air Force roared back in the last four minutes of the game, scoring twice to pull within three. The onside kick attempt with less than a minute remaining failed as Utah escaped with the victory.
Utah is 1-0 all-time against the ACC, winning its first and only contest last year with a 46-16 win over the Tar Heels in Salt Lake City.
Also gone is former head coach Urban Meyer, who was replaced at the beginning of this season with long-time Utah defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham. In his 11 years as a Ute assistant, the program compiled an 86-41 record and won five of the six bowl games it participated in.
QUOTABLE – Kyle Willingham
“We’re excited about the opportunity to play a quality team like North Carolina on the road. It will be a great experience for our players to play a game in ACC territory. North Carolina is a very fast, athletic football team, as evidenced by their victory over N.C. State and close defeats to Georgia Tech and Wisconsin. We know that they are a good football team and much better than their 1-2 record indicates. They got things turned around after we beat them at our place last year, defeating Miami two weeks later and playing in a bowl game.”
Eighteen-year-old Brian Johnson (#3, 6-1, 203, So.) is 3-1 as the starter and has completed 73-of-119 passing attempts for 1,001 yards and five touchdowns against two interceptions. He is completing 66.4 percent of his passes while averaging 250.2 yards per game and leads the MWC in pass efficiency (154.17). Johnson passed for 305 yards on 21-of-29 passing, and assisted in five touchdowns against Air Force. He broke the school record, and tied the conference record, for completion percentage in just his second start when he completed 18-of-21 passes versus Utah State on Sept. 10. Junior college transfer Brett Ratliff (#15, 6-4, 195, Jr.) played briefly in that game and has completed just one pass this season.
“Johnson’s the same type of player as Alex Smith, but with a little better running skills,” John Bunting said. “What he doesn’t have is Smith’s experience. That’s why a lot of teams are trying to blitz this quarterback and they’ve gotten into trouble. He’s got a lot of tools.”
Quinton Ganther (#13, 5-10, 214, Sr.) leads Utah and ranks third in the MWC with 89.0 rushing yards per game. He has 81 rushes for 356 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. Ganther has two 100-yard games already this year and four in his career. He also has seven receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown. In last year’s match-up with Carolina, he had 10 carries for 65 yards and a five-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. Ganther gets most of the snaps at tailback, but his backups are Darrell Mack (#12, 6-0, 202, Fr.), Darryl Poston (#10, 5-11, 197, Sr.) and Mike Liti (#20, 5-10, 210, So.). The trio has combined for 57 yards on 15 carries. Only Mack has seen action in more than one game.
Travis LaTendresse (#88, 6-1, 200, Sr.) had a career-high 10 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons. LaTendresse and John Madsen (#23, 6-5, 220, Sr.) are the only two Utes receivers that have topped 130 yards receiving in games this year. LaTendresse has moved into the team receiving lead with 19 catches for 253 yards and a touchdown. Madsen is second with 227 yards receiving. Brent Casteel (#6, 5-10, 192, Fr.) has started three games at H-Back and is Utah’s third-leading receiver (15-179) and rusher (19-155, TD). Brian Hernandez (#16, 6-0, 183, Jr.) has the longest reception of the year for Utah – a 60-yard touchdown grab last week. He now has 11 catches for 195 yards. When the Utes employ four receivers, Casteel is the H-Back, LaTendresse moves to Y, Madsen to X and Hernandez gets the start at Z.
“This is the fourth different offense we’ve faced in four weeks, so we’re going to have to do a great job shifting gears in getting ready for something that is absolutely, totally different from what we’ve faced before,” Bunting said.
Neither starter Chad Jacobsen (#18, 6-4, 254, Sr.) nor backup Willie Sao (#81, 6-4, 275, Sr.) have a pass reception to their credit so far this year. Both provide Utah with additional run blocking and pass protection on most plays.
Utah’s offensive line has size and experience, and did not allow a sack in the game with the Falcons. Right tackle Jason Boone (#69, 6-5, 305, Sr.) leads the team with 24 knockdowns and 10 pancake blocks, including a season-high four in the loss at TCU. He was a preseason all-conference selection and is on the Rimington, Outland and Lombardi Award watch lists. Left tackle Tavo Tupola (#78, 6-3, 300, Jr.) has eight knockdowns and two pancakes. Left guard David Dirkmaat (#74, 6-7, 310, Sr.), right guard Eric Pettit (#75, 6-4, 300, Jr.) and center Jesse Boone (#79, 6-5, 305, Sr.) have all participated in over 200 snaps this season.
A preseason injury to starting end Marquess Ledbetter left a hole that true tackles Steve Fifita (#94, 6-0, 322, Sr.) and Kite Afeaki (#99, 6-2, 285, Sr.) are taking turns trying to fill. Fifita, who plays both tackle positions as well, started the last two games at end. Although consistently double-teamed, the All-America candidate has 13 tackles, two sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. Fifita was the defensive MVP of the ’04 Fiesta Bowl. Afeaki has seven tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. Playing time at the open end position is being split by Alex Puccinelli (#45, 6-1, 220, So.) and Martail Burnett (#93, 6-3, 235, So.). Puccinelli is projected to start for the third straight game after Burnett, who leads the defensive linemen with 20 tackles, started the first two. The nose guard is Kelly Talavou (#98, 6-2, 319, Jr.).
Preseason All-MWC roverback Spencer Toone (#9, 6-2, 235, Sr.) was Utah’s leading tackler a year ago and is tops again so far this year with 41 – second-best in the conference. He’s coming off a career-best 14 tackle performance versus Air Force. Middle linebacker Joe Jiannoni (#44, 6-0, 230, So.) is emerging as a talent after winning the starting job in the third game of the season. His two best games have come in the last two weeks with nine tackles versus the Horned Frogs and eight against the Falcons. Strong side linebacker Kyle Brady (#14, 6-1, 230, So.) is a new starter at the “stud” linebacker position – as the Utes call it. In his first career start last week, he tallied six tackles.
Strong safety Eric Weddle (#32, 6-0, 200, Jr.) is living up to his preseason all-conference billing, leading the team in interceptions (3) and tackles for loss (3.5). He ranks third on the team and seventh in the league with 29 tackles. Weddle has also forced and recovered a fumble. Free safety Casey Evans (#31, 6-0, 198, Jr.) recorded a career high in tackles versus Air Force with 12. He’s second on the team and fourth in the MWC in total tackles (32) and has two interceptions, two tackles for loss and a sack. Evans’ fourth-quarter interception in last week’s game was critical in staving off the Falcons’ come back attempt. Safety Steve Tate (#28, 5-110, 195, So.) made his first career start last week when the Utes’ went with a three-safety secondary. Tate responded with a career-high nine tackles – six solo. Left corner Ryan Smith (#5, 5-10, 165, So.), a second-team freshman All-America honoree last season and a preseason all-conference selection this year, has 21 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups.
First year starting kicker Dan Beardall (#48, 6-1, 193, Sr.) ranks second in the conference in field goals per game with 1.5. He is third in the league in scoring with 8.0 points per game. Beardall has connected on 6-of-7 field goal attempts and has made four straight since his lone miss of the season – a 28-yard attempt versus Utah State. He’s a perfect 14-for-14 on PATs. Punter Louie Sakoda (#35, 5-10, 193, Fr.) is averaging 36.8 yards per punt, with 14-of-20 of his offerings winding up downed inside the 20-yard line. Weddle is averaging 8.3 yards on 11 punt returns with a long of 22. Casteel is the conference’s second-leading kick returner with a 26.0 averaged and a long of 40.