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Utah offense’s task is to move ball

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Even Utah's offense has a job to do today to stop Indiana, the elusive Antwaan Randle El and a Hoosier offense that can put 30 points on the board quickly.

That job is to hog the ball, and "we've got to definitely score more than 10 points," said Ute offensive lineman Jordan Gross, now back at right tackle since left guard Ed Ta'amu finally got clearance Thursday from the NCAA to play one more season.

"That's the nice thing about offense. We kind of set the tone," said Gross. "If we run the ball right at them well, we force them to play our game." And keep Utah's defense from having to chase Randle El against a line that averages 305 pounds.

Utah (1-1) is in Big Ten country today to meet 0-1 Indiana at Memorial Stadium at 3 p.m. MDT.

But more than just possessing the ball and churning upfield, Utah must do something else to extend the growth it made in the first two games. It needs combustibility. "We need some big plays to move the ball, not 4 yards every time, to get the defense a little more flustered than we have," said Gross.

"The offense needs to get in the end zone a whole lot more — passing the ball," said Cliff Russell, the Utes' chief big-play threat who had a 36-yard reception in the opener against Utah State but hasn't scored on 12 catches. "I'm going to try to get in the end zone this week. I'm past due."

Russell said there's "no real big problems. Basically, it's just finishing in the red zone. We've got to finish this week. We have to. It's a must."

"That's the only thing that will answer all the questions," Gross said. "We need to have a big outing. We put in some special drills finishing in the end zone to get it in our heads that just moving the ball doesn't win games. You've got to score points."

"That's the next step for this offense," said coach Ron McBride.

It's had only two games under new coordinator Craig Ver Steeg, who calls the progress "a normal learning curve."

Gross said Ta'amu's absence and injuries to Russell in training camp and to tailback Marty Johnson, who averaged 15.8 yards per carry on six tries in the opener, have kept the whole offense from practicing together. Johnson injured ribs late in Game 1 and is still out. "The big plays will come with practice. They're not just flukes," Gross said.

McBride is thrilled to have Ta'amu back because "his physical ability is unbelievable." As an initial non-qualifier, Ta'amu had to graduate this summer to gain a fourth playing year, then be cleared by the NCAA.

Lance Rice will quarterback, but Ver Steeg hopes to get backup Ryan Breska some meaningful minutes. He did well late in the 24-10 loss at Oregon. He originally went to nearby Purdue.

IU's defense gave up 38.5 points a game last year and 35 at North Carolina State Sept. 6 but is thought to be on the upswing. "It's a typical Big Ten team," he says, meaning its depth will be good.

Utah's defense must contend with an experienced IU line and big running backs as well as option quarterback Randle El and dropback passer Tommy Jones.

Defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham shakes his head. "They've got size. No question about that," he said. "But we've got big guys up front. That's one thing we are up front. Not outrageously fast or quick, but we are physical. It will be a good test for our front guys."

That's a mixture of Jason Kaufusi, Marcus Jones, Garrett Smith, Lauvale Sape, Ma'ake Kemoeatu and sophomore Josh Savage. Utah substituted freely at Oregon with good results. Savage got his first extended playing time since last fall's severe shoulder injury. He could start at left end after making seven Duck tackles including a sack.

Whittingham expects IU to test his young corners. "Oh yeah, everyone would until we prove we can take care of business," he said. "Throw it up top, go vertical — it's more the other guy, but I'm sure Randle El will sprint out and cause us problems."

UTAH (1-1) AT INDIANA (0-1)

3 p.m., Memorial Stadium (Bloomington, Ind.)

TV: KJZZ, Ch. 14


E-mail: lham@desnews.com