For the first time in Mountain West Conference history, two teams ranked in the AP's top-10 square off, as the fourth-ranked TCU Horned Frogs and the sixth-ranked Utah Utes battle for league supremacy in Salt Lake City on Saturday afternoon.
TCU, which represents the highest-ranked opponent that the Utes have faced in Rice-Eccles Stadium since it opened in 1998, has won nine straight road games dating back to last season and that ties Utah for the longest streak in MWC history. The Horned Frogs have also won 14 straight league outings, four shy of the record held by BYU, so being away from home and in a heated league meeting is nothing unusual for TCU.
The Frogs, who have won 22 straight regular season matchups, have been overwhelmingly dominant the last five games, holding foes to a combined 16 points during that stretch. Most recently the team crushed UNLV on the road last Saturday in a 48-6 final.
As for the Utes, they like TCU have won nine consecutive games overall, but they have not hosted an opponent this high in the rankings since taking on BYU (third) back in 1984 when the Cougars were among the college football elite. Utah has won 21 in a row at home, the third-longest active streak in the country and the second-longest in both school and conference history as well, but it has been a long time since the squad had a challenge like this on their hands.
The Utes may have been exposed a bit last weekend when the Air Force Falcons took them down to the wire in what eventually turned into a 28-23 road victory for Utah. With a 5-0 mark in conference play, the Utes and Horned Frogs are tied atop the league standings at the moment.
Utah owns a 5-2 advantage in the all-time series with the Frogs, but it was TCU that claimed a 55-28 victory in last year's meeting on its way to running the table in the MWC and being undefeated during the regular season. The Utes have captured all three previous meetings between the schools in Salt Lake City. The last time the teams met in this stadium it was under very similar circumstances as Utah was ranked 10th and the Frogs 11th in the nation two years ago.
Once again TCU showed why it is such a dominant program, last week holding UNLV to a mere 197 yards of total offense in yet another blowout. The Frogs surrendered just 69 yards on the ground and, while permitting 128 yards and a TD through the air, still made things messy for the Rebels by picking off a pair of passes.
From an offensive standpoint, TCU rolled up 273 yards and scored four times on the ground, with four different players hitting the end zone, while Andy Dalton converted 16-of-23 passes for 252 yards and two TDs as well. Jeremy Kerley caught five balls for a game-high 82 yards and a score and also was credited with a five-yard rushing TD as well.
No other college team was as stubborn on defense as the Horned Frogs were in the month of October, the squad allowing a total of just two touchdowns to the opposition. Foes were held to single-digit scoring in all five of those October tests, marking the sixth time in 2010 that TCU has managed to turn the trick. Needless to say, with that sort of effort it should come as no surprise that the Frogs are first in the nation in scoring defense, allowing a feeble 8.67 ppg, and also first in overall defense with just 217.3 ypg given up.
As strong as the defense has been for the Frogs, Dalton has the offense rolling along in similar dominating fashion. The signal-caller might not throw for a lot of yards typically, the passing attack generating 214.8 ypg, but what Dalton does is study and evaluate defenses as well as any QB in the country, which is why TCU is 11th in the nation with 485.7 total ypg.
Now second in the conference and ninth in the nation in rushing with 270.9 ypg, the Horned Frogs have watched Ed Wesley turn into a key feature for the offense. Needing just 62 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, Wesley has scored at least one TD in all but two games this season and has tallied a pair of scores in three contests.
Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata took over the offense for the Utes in their close call against Air Force last weekend, the duo combining for 177 yards and three touchdowns on 49 rushing attempts. Jordan Wynn had a sub par effort as he converted 15-of-23 passes for 148 yards and a score and was again intercepted by the opposition.
"We got up 28-10 and kind of felt like we were in a flow and then just kind of left some points out on the field," Wynn noted after the close call. "Hats off to (Air Force). They came back and played us tough and made it close. (Utah's defense) did a great job of bending, but not breaking. They kind of gave up the big play, but were forcing turnovers. So, hats off to the defense as well, because in crunch time, they got it done."
Every Air Force opponent prepares to try and stop the Falcons on the ground, but few anticipate the academy to try and go over the top with a passing attack that is notoriously lackluster. Nevertheless, the Utes were caught off- guard by Air Force as the home team used eight completed passes to generate a whopping 201 yards and a score. But at the same time, the secondary managed to pick off a pair of Falcons passes and that kept the hosts from scoring the upset.
"We've got to move the chains and control the football," says Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham as he prepares his team for the showdown with the Horned Frogs. "We have to open up the entire offense. Against Air Force, our mindset was to keep their offense on the sideline...Jordan Wynn will have the entire offense at his disposal. We have to take care of the football, which we did last week. We also did a great job of getting takeaways. If we can win the turnover margin again, that will be huge in this game."
Wynn has completed close to 70 percent of his pass attempts this season, resulting in 238.5 ypg and a total of 13 TDs, but for the most part it has been the running game that has pushed the Utes to the brink of greatness. Now eight games in, Wide and Asiata have combined for nearly 1,000 yards, averaging close to five yards per attempt, and have landed in the end zone 15 times. But as great as that duo has been, TCU has to be on the lookout for Jereme Brooks who can stretch the field having averaged almost five catches per game. Despite missing the Air Force meeting with an injury, coach Whittingham expects DeVonte Christopher (26 receptions, 499 yards, five TDs) to be back in the lineup this weekend.
Like the Horned Frogs, Utah also has a hard-hitting defense this season, one that is ranked sixth in the nation in both yards allowed (267.8 ypg) and points (14.1 ppg).
"It's going to be a showdown," Wynn says of the impending matchup with the Horned Frogs. "They're having a great year. Their defense is having another good year, so we are going to have to go out there and play a perfect game...They showed us last year how great they were and so it's going to be a good week of preparation and a good game on Saturday."
Considering how close the Utes came to losing their undefeated status last weekend, perhaps TCU learned a thing or two about how to take care of them. It will certainly be a hard-fought game, but one that the Horned Frogs should be able to squeeze out.