Las Vegas Bowl Preview: Can Garrett Grayson, Rashard Higgins and Colorado State beat Utah?
Utah (8-4) vs. Colorado State (10-2)
Dec. 20, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
• Reason to watch: For a pre-Christmas bowl game, the Las Vegas Bowl boasts one of the best matchups between a potent offense and a ferocious defense. Colorado State ranks seventh nationally in yards per play (6.7), as quarterback Garrett Grayson and wide receiver Rashard Higgins form a prodigious pairing. Higgins racked up 1,640 yards with 17 touchdowns this season, earning a finalist nomination for the Biletnikoff Award. The Rams present balance, too, as tailback Dee Hart compiled 1,254 yards on the ground with 16 scores.
However, Utah brings an elite level of disruptiveness that Colorado State has yet to see. The Utes lead the nation in sacks (4.3 per game) and rank fourth in tackles for loss (8.3 per game). Defensive end Nate Orchard averages nearly 1.5 sacks per game and could wreak havoc on Grayson.
• Keep an eye on: Although Utes quarterback Travis Wilson can be counted on to avoid mistakes, the burst for Utah’s offense comes from running back Devontae Booker. The 5-foot-11, 203-pound junior is a physical runner who is tough to bring down. He bulldozed his way to 1,350 rushing yards this fall and was also an asset in the passing game, making 39 catches for 282 yards. Colorado State has proven a bit vulnerable against the run, allowing an average of 4.6 yards per carry. Jay Ajayi, a powerful back for Boise State, gashed the Rams for 280 total yards with three scores in a 37-24 victory on Sept. 6.
• Did you know: Utah’s special teams are among the best in the nation. Tom Hackett took home this year’s Ray Guy Award behind his 47.0-yard punting average. Kicker Andy Phillips was among the best in the Pac-12, too, connecting on 22-of-26 field goal attempts, including both of his tries from 50-plus yards. In the return game, Kaelin Clay took three punts and one kick back for touchdowns. His 16.9-yard punt return average ranks fourth in the country.
• Final analysis: A big question mark is how Colorado State will fare without coach Jim McElwain, who left to take the Florida job earlier this month. Dave Baldwin, Colorado State’s offensive coordinator, has assumed head coaching duties on an interim basis. Baldwin has FBS head coaching experience from four seasons at San Jose State (1997-2000), but never took the Spartans to a bowl game, despite a 7-5 mark in his final season with the school. He would love to remove the interim label from his current title, and a bowl win over a Power Five foe would make for a nice audition. Given the success of the program under McElwain, don’t expect Baldwin to try to change much.
• The pick: Utah 27, Colorado State 20