Utah St.-Utah Preview
After impressively handling the spotlight of one of the more anticipated games on the opening week schedule, Utah now has to gear up for an in-state rival that's waited two years for a chance at revenge.
The No. 24 Utes renew acquaintances with Utah State as the schools resume a longtime series Friday night after a year hiatus.
Although Jim Harbaugh's ballyhooed Michigan coaching debut garnered all the pregame headlines at Utah last Saturday, it was the Utes' defense that stole the show in a 24-17 home victory that catapulted the program into the Top 25. Utah held the Wolverines to 76 rushing yards and picked off Jake Rudock three times - the last a Justin Thomas 55-yard interception return for a touchdown with 7:58 remaining.
A secondary that often frustrated Rudock also got a key piece back when coach Kyle Whittingham reinstated cornerback Dominique Hatfield on Monday. The 10-game starter in 2014 had been dismissed from the team in July after an arrest on aggravated robbery and theft charges that were later dropped.
"We felt he served enough of a punishment," Whittingham said. "It was our belief, in fairness, that he was deserving of being reinstated. In my opinion, he was ready to come back."
Whittingham was unsure whether Hatfield would be ready to play Friday.
Despite a lackluster win over an FCS school in its season debut, Utah State should keep the Utes' focus. The Aggies stopped a 12-game series losing streak with a 27-20 overtime win in Logan in 2012 and gave Utah all it could handle in Salt Lake City a year later, with the Utes rallying from a nine-point third-quarter deficit to earn a 30-26 decision.
Utah State's Chuckie Keeton threw for 314 yards and rushed for 85 that night, but the dynamic senior quarterback appeared rusty while completing just 16 of 33 throws for 110 yards with an interception in last Thursday's 12-9 win over Southern Utah. Keeton missed the final 11 games of Utah State's 10-4 campaign of 2014 after injuring an already surgically repaired left knee.
The Aggies mustered just 250 total yards against Southern Utah and didn't pull ahead until Andrew Rodriguez's 88-yard punt return touchdown with 4:54 left.
"It wasn't pretty, I'm not going to try and put lipstick on a pig," Utah State coach Matt Wells said. "There are a lot of things to correct, but a win's a win. I just told the guys in the locker room that they will be defined by how they move forward. They will not be defined by (this game)."
Utah's Travis Wilson was a sharp against Michigan, going 24 of 33 for 208 yards and added a 14-yard touchdown run. The senior threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns in the 2013 matchup with the Aggies.
"He's been playing with confidence. He has complete grasp of the offense. He's playing with a lot of poise," Whittingham said. "He did an exceptional job. As I said after the game as well, he's no longer just a game manager. He's a guy who can go out and make a bunch of plays for us."
Wilson's performance offset a modest one from star running back Devontae Booker, held to 69 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries by the Wolverines.
Booker, coming off a 1,512-yard, 10-touchdown season, draws another tough challenge from a Utah State defense that finished 24th nationally against the run in 2014 and yielded a mere 163 total yards to Southern Utah.
"Something Utah State's defense has prided itself on over the last couple of years, is people don't run on us," linebacker Kyler Fackrell said. "They have a big, strong offensive line and they have a couple of big, physical runners behind them, so it will be a big challenge."
The Aggies have lost seven straight road games in the series, last winning at Utah in 1997