Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 | 10:10 a.m.
WHEN UTAH HAS THE BALL
Utah run offense vs. UNLV run defense
The Utes have dominated the line of scrimmage in this series, especially on offense. Utah rushed for 211 yards in last year's 28-17 victory in Salt Lake City as running backs J.R. Peroulis (17 carries, 110 yards) and Brandon Warfield (14 carries, 95 yards) combined for 205 yards. Of course, it didn't hurt that they had the nation's premier offensive tackle, Jordan Gross, a first-round pick of the Carolina Panthers, blocking for them. The Utes still have a big, strong and physical offensive line led by junior guard Chris Kemoeatu. However, Kemoeatu must sit out the first half of the game after getting ejected at the end of last week's 24-6 victory against San Diego State for kicking a player. Warfield is back and leads the conference in rushing with a 122.2 yards per game average which ranks him s eventh in the nation. Except for a second half meltdown at Kansas, UNLV's rush defense has been solid allowing just 138.2 yards per game on the ground.
Utah pass offense vs. UNLV pass defense
This was supposed to be the one big weaknesses of the Utes coming into the season. However, sophomore quarterback Alex Smith has won back-to-back Mountain West Conference offensive player of the week awards and has not thrown an interception in 116 attempts dating to last season while completing 71.2 percent of his passes . His pass efficiency rating of 163.92 leads the Mountain West Conference and ranks him seventh in the nation. His favorite target has been junior Paris Warren who leads the nation in receptions per game (8.2) although talented freshman Steve Savoy (22 catches, 356 yards, 2 TDs) is also having a big year. UNLV's secondary, led by All-American candidate Jamaal Brimmer at safety and cornerback Ruschard Dodd-Masters, has played better than expected this season but will face probably its biggest challenge this week.
WHEN UNLV HAS THE BALL
UNLV run offense vs. Utah run defense
Rebels have two of the top seven rushers in the Mountain West Conference in senior Larry Croom (76.8 yards per game) and junior speedster Dominique Dorsey (70.7 ypg) who are both capable of breaking the big play. They'll need to do that against a Utah defense that likes to blitz and shoot the gaps to stop the run and could be prone to big play if you can get past the initial line of scrimmage. The Utes are allowing just 108.3 yards per game on the ground but have allowed eight rushing touchdowns. Not bad considering their best defensive lineman,two-time all-MWC pick Jason Kaufusi, isn't playing this season following shoulder surgery. Sophomore Steve Fifita, being touted as the best nose guard in the conference by the Utes, has helped pick up the slack as has senior end Josh Sgeszyenavage (21 tackles).
UNLV pass offense vs. Utah pass defense
Former Cimarron-Memorial High star Arnold Parker is having an all-conference type of season for the Utes at one cornerback spot while strong safety Dave Revill is in the same class as UNLV's Jamaal Brimmer. The Utes start a true freshman, Eric Weddle, at the other corner spot and he has held up well so far making a key interception in the end zone in last week's game against San Diego State. UNLV's passing offense, expected to be one of the team's strengths this year, has struggled in recent weeks as team's concentrate on taking junior wide receiver Earvin Johnson out of the game. Look for the Utes to put the pressure on quarterback Kurt Nantkes, who lacks the mobility to escape the rush that predecessor Jason Thomas had.
If there is an advantage for the Rebels, this may be it. Punter Gary Cook is averaging 43.1 yards per kick and has been outstanding at pinning opposing teams inside their 20. Placekicker Dillon Pieffer had connected on 9 of 10 field goal tries before having one blocked at Air Force and another miss by inches. Meanwhile, Utah kicker Bryan Borreson has struggled at times this season on field goals, connecting on 6 of 9 with a long of just 36 yards. He has also missed two PATs. However, he has been outstanding on kickoffs with 17 touchbacks in 31 attempts. UNLV has the better punt returner in redshirt freshman Tremayne Kirkland (12.8 avg.) while Utah has the better kickoff returner in Bo Nagahi (22.8 avg.).
Both teams have forced 17 turnovers this season so winning that battle could be a big key in the game. UNLV players are aware a loss this week puts them at 0-2 out of the gate in Mountain West Conference play and pretty much out of the Liberty Bowl hunt. They seem to be much more focused in practice this week. Look for them to come out with a real sense of urgency, especially on defense. That, along with playing just their second home game in six weeks, should give the Rebels a much needed boost. The key will be whether the offense, especially the passing game, also picks it up a notch. UNLV is 2-0 at Sam Boyd Stadium this year and has defeated two quality opponents in Toledo and Hawaii.
Urban Meyer, one of the top young coaches in the nation who did a remarkable job of turning around Bowling Green's program, has brought a much-needed spark to Utah, especially on the offensive side of the ball. He has two top-notch coordinators in Mike Sanford (offense), a former assistant to John Robinson at USC, and Kyle Whittingham (defense), whom he smartly held over from Ron McBride's staff. Robinson and assistant Bruce Snyder both have won national coach of the year awards during their Pac-10 coaching days and defensive coordinator Mike Bradeson has quietly put together one of the conference's top defenses.
KEYS TO VICTORY
To win, Utah must ...
1. Stop the run. UNLV's passing attack continues to sputter badly.
2. Possess the ball. On what figures to be a pretty hot afternoon, the team that can keep its defense off the field and fresh should have the advantage in the fourth quarter.
3. Blitz, blitz and more blitzes. Air Force and Nevada-Reno both caused havoc up front for the Rebels offensive line.
To win, UNLV must ...
1. Win the turnover battle. With the offense not operating on all cylinders yet, the Rebels need to make something happen on the defensive side.
2. Make big plays. Whether it's Tremayne Kirkland running back a punt or Dominique Dorsey or Larry Croom busting through the line for a long run, the Rebels need to find a way to energize their stagnant offense.
3. Make the field longer. Much like the Hawaii game, punter Gary Cook needs to come through with punts that force a high-powered Utah offense to start on its 10- or 15-yard line consistently.
Utah 21, UNLV 16