In always unpredictable Pac-12, Utes won’t sleep on slumping Stanford
Utah coaches and players anticipate a very physical battle with the Cardinal, no matter what QB they have under center
STANFORD, California — While Utah is in control of the Pac-12 South, sitting in sole possession of first place entering the final month of the regular season, players and coaches say they won’t get complacent.
Utes on the air
Utah (5-3, 4-1)
at Stanford (3-5, 2-4)
Friday, 8:30 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700
The Utes, who have won four of their last five games, know they can’t let their guard down Friday (8:30 p.m. MDT, FS1) when they visit Stanford.
The Cardinal have lost three straight games and four of their last five. Stanford is stuck in last place in the Pac-12 North. And starting quarterback Tanner McKee is questionable after suffering an injury in last week’s loss to Washington.
But in the Pac-12, chaos is commonplace. Just last week, for example, Washington State drilled Arizona State and Cal beat Oregon State.
“It’s a testament to how competitive this conference is,” said Utah tight end Brant Kuithe. “Any team can beat any other on any given day. You have no clue what’s going to happen. It’s a great conference. It’s just weird how everybody beats each other.”
Coach Kyle Whittingham said his team isn’t focused on being in first place. It’s focused on finishing strong.
“The only thing that matters for us this week is trying to find a way to beat Stanford. We don’t focus on where we are sitting in the standings. We know they are a good football team,” he said. “They’ve beaten USC and Oregon. They’re a team that can play really good football.
“That’s the nature of the Pac-12. If you’re not ready any week — look at last week — this conference is such that you’ve got to be at your best every week or you’re going to get beat.”
Stanford’s calling card is being physical. It’s a challenge that Utah is looking forward to facing.
“They’re an old-school team,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “They have a very big front seven. We’re looking forward to playing them.”
“It’s fun, for sure. I like going head-up with people. Not many teams will go head-up with Utah because of how physical we are,” said Utah offensive lineman Nick Ford. “Stanford is a tough program. They’re a blue-collar program. I’m excited for it. It’s going to be fun for us. Stanford prides itself on physicality. They’ve got big guys that are wanting to hit people. They’re not afraid of anything. I have a lot of respect for their program.”
While Stanford upset then-No. 3 Oregon back on Oct. 2, handing the Ducks their lone loss of the season, the Cardinal hasn’t been as effective in the run game as they traditionally are.
“They’re physical. … They’re not having as good a year on defense as typically they have,” Whittingham said. “In years’ past, they’ve been very stingy defensively. This year, less so in the run game on defense. Still, we’re expecting a physical battle. It should be a great game.”
Whittingham added that the Cardinal have a different look on the offensive side as well.
“Typically, Stanford is a grind-it-out team and has a featured tailback that is pretty high-profile. They run the ball right at you. Most years they rush for a lot more than what they’re rushing for now,” Whittingham said. “Every year is different. Some years you don’t have the same blend of guys that lend itself to what you’ve been doing. You’ve got to find a change and that’s what they’re doing this year.”
If McKee can’t play, Stanford will likely start senior Jack West. McKee threw a touchdown pass to force overtime against Oregon, then threw the game-winning TD pass in OT.
“A big, strong kid. Pocket guy. He can move around but he’d rather beat you from the pocket. He’s 6-6, 240. He has a strong arm,” Whittingham said. “He’s a really good player. He was a very sought-after player coming out of high school. He was a big-time recruit coming out of high school. He went on a church mission and now he’s back. He’s their guy at this point.”
In Utah’s 44-24 thumping of UCLA last Saturday, the Utes dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
“We came out and played with a great deal of physicality,” he said. “The mantra all week long was physicality.”
But this is a short week, meaning that Utah has one fewer day of practice and there’s a travel day.
“We have one day less to prepare so we’ve got to be very good in our preparation and the utilization of the time that we do have,” Whittingham said. “Hopefully, we’re able to keep some of this momentum. The offense has played very well four weeks in a row.”
Offensive line coach Jim Harding wants to see another physical performance against Stanford.
“They’ve prided themselves through the years on being physical. Statistically, they’re not what UCLA is,” he said. “But we don’t care about the statistics, good or bad. It’s going to be a dogfight on Friday night. Our kids have to be ready to go physically.”