Moments after limping off the field during a game against Louisville last September, running back Matt Asiata found his close friend and backup, Eddie Wide, on the sideline and officially passed the baton. "It's your time to shine now," said Asiata, who suffered a torn right ACL that would force him to miss the rest of the season. Wide, a 5' 10", 195-pound speedster who had never carried the ball more than 10 times in a game, did exactly that. He rushed for 129 yards against the Cardinals, the first of six straight 100-yard games. "Matt's injury could have been a big blow to the team," says Utes coach Kyle Whittingham. "I don't want to say Eddie saved our season, but there's no doubt he was a huge reason why we won 10 games last year."
Asiata, who was a senior last season, was given a one-year medical exemption by the NCAA to play in 2010. The return of the 5' 11", 220-pound Asiata, as well as Wide, now a senior, and 6' 2", 222-pound sophomore Sausan Shakerin (5.5 yards per carry last year), gives the Utes a backfield that will bedevil Mountain West defenses. "Matt's a bruiser, and Sausan and I are more slasher types," says Wide. "We contrast each other real well."
Whittingham plans on using more two-back sets in Utah's spread offense, hoping to give each of his runners chances to make the big play. "We're looking to utilize our strengths, and running back is certainly a big strength of this year's team," he says.
A formidable ground game will take pressure off quarterback Jordan Wynn, who made his debut as a true freshman in the eighth game last season. The MVP of the Poinsettia Bowl (career-high 338 passing yards against Cal), he'll run a balanced offense that may need to win a number of shootouts: The Utes' defense, which gave up 55 points and 549 total yards in a loss to TCU last November, has just four starters returning.
The announcement of Utah's move to the Pac-10 in 2011 has galvanized the Salt Lake City faithful. "There's a lot of excitement," says Wide, "but there's also unfinished business. We want to go out with a bang and win a conference championship."