From The Sports Network
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: Vaulting into the AP poll at the 20th position, the Utah Utes are at home again this week as they kick off their Mountain West Conference schedule against the UNLV Rebels at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.
Last week, the Utes played one of the more thrilling games of the opening week as the team saw an 11-point lead over nationally-ranked Pittsburgh slip away in the final minutes and then needed overtime to register the 27-24 win at home. The triumph was the 18th in a row at home for Utah, a team that plays three of its first four games of 2010 at home.
"It was a good way to start the season," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said of his team's final result on Thursday night. "We got a win against a very good Pitt team with a great running back, receiver and a physical defense. We didn't play our best game, we had a lot of miscues, but I am proud of the way our players responded. They battled and fought and found a way to win at the end."
As for the Rebels, now under the direction of new head coach Bobby Hauck who made a name for himself at Montana where he was the winningest coach in I-AA/Football Championship Subdivision history, they dropped their season opener for the first time since 2005 when they suffered a 41-21 setback at the hands of the 12th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers at home in Sam Boyd Stadium. Unfortunately for UNLV, the schedule is far from kind in 2010 as the squad has a winning series record against just one of its opponents (Idaho).
Going against UNLV in this clash this time around is a history that has the visitors winless in SLC in seven previous attempts. What's more, Utah owns a 13-2 overall series advantage and defeated the Rebels in the most recent encounter last season by a score of 35-15.
"The thing we can hang our hat on is that we fought back into the game, forced a couple turnovers," noted coach Hauck after the loss to Wisconsin. "We played hard in the fourth quarter, which finishing the game is a major point of emphasis for us and we need to continue to do that down the road and hopefully it will pay dividends in terms of wins."
Getting the start at quarterback for the Rebels was Mike Clausen, finishing a mere 4-of-10 for 23 yards and a touchdown while being sacked three times. As coach Hauck said of the position, he was going to use Omar Clayton as well but his insertion into the action didn't make much of a difference because he completed only 6-of-16 passes for 82 yards and a score in the losing effort. Clayton also led the group with 59 yards rushing on nine carries, the team coming up with 112 yards overall in that department.
Will Chandler's 19-yard interception for a touchdown to get the Rebels on the scoreboard late in the first quarter was certainly huge for the home team and gave them reason to think they could compete against Wisconsin, but it really was false hope because the visitors finished with four TDs on the ground.
"They had 50 rushes for 278 yards, at times we played well, but the consistency of it wasn't there for us," coach Hauck said of his team's efforts to stop the Wisconsin rushing attack. "They're really good at what they do and if you start getting out of gaps and not playing things soundly, with their heavy personal they have a body for everybody but one, and if someone gets out of their gap it creates problems. They are times when we played it well and times when they made us look bad."
Unfortunately, getting beaten up on the ground is nothing new for this UNLV program because last season the squad ranked last in the MWC and 112th in the country with a whopping 220.6 ypg surrendered. Because of that weakness the Rebels ended up allowing 456.2 ypg in total offense (115th nationally) and a final product of 32.4 ppg permitted as well (103rd in the country). Chances are the numbers will be up in that neighborhood yet again this season given that Jason Beauchamp, the leader in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks in 2009, is no longer on the roster.
Going back and forth between Clayton and Clausen might not be a remedy for the offense either, particularly since all-conference receiver and team record- holder in many a stat Ryan Wolfe has also made the move to the next level of his career.
Not knowing which player will be the starter at quarterback is not only an issue for the Rebels themselves, it is also something the Utes should be concerned about as they game plan for this weekend, yet coach Whittingham seems to be indifferent about it at the moment.
"It doesn't affect our prep. We saw them both on tape Saturday and they are both capable. They both have their own skill set and things they do well. We anticipate seeing both anyway, so we will prepare for both. There is not a big difference between the two."
Then again, as long as the staff and the rest of the Utes can count on freshman safety Brian Blechen showing up and making the play of the game for the team there should be little concern who is lining up under center on the other side.
Blechen finished the game against Pittsburgh with five tackles but more importantly, intercepted a pass on the first play of overtime to give the Utes first crack at notching the win, which they did. Also playing a big part for the Utah defense were Junior Tui'one and Latu Heimuli who both came up with sacks against an inexperienced Pitt signal-caller.
With his eight receptions for 155 yards and a touchdown, sophomore wideout Devonte Christopher was named the MWC Offensive Player of the Week, yet a case could also have been made for quarterback Jordan Wynn who completed 21-of-36 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns. Perhaps Wynn's interception in the end zone late in the first half was reason enough to keep the award out of his hands. Also coming up big were Jereme Brooks with a pair of TD receptions and kicker Joe Phillips who knocked through the game-winning field goal in overtime from 21 yards away.
Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide combined for 112 yards rushing and gave the Panthers plenty to think about when they lined up in the backfield for Utah. Last season, Wide took care of the bulk of the rushing for the program with his 82.2 ypg on the ground, but with Asiata back in the lineup he adds another dimension to the offense because he can also take direct snaps and do with the ball what he deems appropriate.
Aside from the defense falling asleep late in the game in the opener, the only other real concern for the Utes right now is how well Shaky Smithson will be able to bounce back from fumbling twice and really putting the game in jeopardy from the very beginning. Smithson was the leading kick returner for the team last year and was second in punt returns as well, so getting his head on straight is very important.
A change in coaching may have the Rebels a little more amped up for the start of this season, but catching Utah off guard in Salt Lake City is a tall task for any opponent right now. With this being the MWC opener, except to see the Utes bust out in a big way and send a message to the rest of the league.