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Stanford Cardinal can't overlook Utes

  • Utah quarterback Travis Wilson throws a pass in the fourth quarter against UCLA on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (RICK BOWMER/Associated Press)

The good news for fifth-ranked Stanford as it navigates the maw of conference play is that Justin Wilcox won't be on the opposing sideline the rest of the season.

The Washington defensive coordinator conjured game plans (last week and last year) that held the Cardinal to three offensive touchdowns in eight quarters, contained the vaunted running game and made life exceedingly difficult on third down.

Wilcox provided Stanford's upcoming opponents — including Utah, which is poised to pounce today at Rice-Eccles Stadium — with a blueprint for slowing the Cardinal.

But not every coordinator has Wilcox's acumen, not every defense has UW's personnel, and not every opponent can adjust on the fly effectively.

“It's hard to change your scheme midseason,” Stanford coach David Shaw said when asked about the ripple effects of Wilcox's tactics. “But there are things people might try to emulate.”

Utah lacks Washington's athleticism but plays with comparable aggressiveness. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in sacks (3.6 per game) and are tougher against the run than UW. Last week, they held UCLA to one second-half touchdown despite five turnovers by the Utes' offense.

“Utah has guys up front that are hard to move, hard to block,” Shaw said. “That's something have to take into account.”

The Cardinal also must deal with the altitude, a rowdy crowd and Utes quarterback Travis Wilson, one of the most improved players in the conference.

A 6-foot-7 sophomore, Wilson is tall enough to see over defensive linemen and extremely mobile: He rushed for 142 yards against Oregon State.

“He's a better athlete than a tall guy should be,” Shaw said. “It's going to be about containing — we can't let him scramble for first downs.”

The Utes (3-2, 0-2) lack the record, ranking and reputation of the teams that come before and after them on Stanford's schedule (Washington and UCLA). But they've proven they can play with the league's elite, especially at home.

If not for a handful of missed chances against Oregon State and UCLA, they'd be undefeated.

“It will be a challenge,” Cardinal linebacker A.J. Tarpley said. “They aren't a team you can take lightly.”

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