For a football team whose offense through the first half of the season had hovered somewhere between the Vatican Guards and Gandhi, the University of Utah looked positively explosive on deerhunt Saturday.
The University of Texas-El Paso had to be wondering why them. The Utes had spent the autumn not offending anyone. Then the Miners come to Salt Lake City fresh from an upset win in Honolulu, they wear hunter orange (conveniently their school color) for even extra protection, and what happens? The Utes score a season-high 37 points is what happens, treating the Miners with the same kind of disdain as last year, when they scored a season-high 50 points in El Paso on the way to a 50-45 win.Speaking of last year, the Utes looked like a semblance of their former selves in racking up their 37 points - the equal of the total number of points they'd scored in the previous four games combined - and 427 total yards, also the highest of the year.
The Utes had undergone a major flip-flop this year in light of their coaching change (Ron McBride in, Jim Fassel out). The knock on Fassel's teams were that they were all offense, no defense - a knock verified by the Utes' national rankings at the close of last season of dead last (106th) in defense, and close to the top (14th) in offense.
The new coach, naturally, set about changing that, and through the first six games you'd have to say he'd succeeded. Coming into the UTEP game, Utah ranked 67th nationally in defense - still not terrific, but 39 positions ahead of a year ago - but ranked 76th in offense.
For the UTEP game, the twain finally met. Namely, last year's offense and this year's defense.
The solid defense that had been a staple through the first six games was its usual self (it had allowed an average of 375 yards and 22 points a game - and allowed 388 yards and 23 points to the Miners), and as for the offense . . . "Yeah, it did feel a little like last year out there," said quarterback Mike Richmond, who threw for 252 yards on 18-of-29 passing with three touchdowns.
Richmond didn't say this to sleight his new coaches/bosses, only to note that A) The Utes had scored points, B) Gained yards and C) He had personally played a significant amount of time.
Richmond hadn't looked like this since, well, since last year, when he started the final two games of the season, in place of Scott Mitchell, who was injured, and had 393 yards and four touchdowns against BYU and 331 yards and another four touchdowns against Air Force. The Utes lost both those games.
Clifton Smith and Bryan Rowley, a tailback and wide receiver, respectively, were major offensive weapons a year ago. Like Richmond, they were back to their '89 tricks Saturday. After gaining just 33 yards rushing and catching two passes all season for 19 yards, Smith gained 32 yards rushing on four carries and caught nine passes for 58 yards. And after catching just eight passes in six games for one touchdown, Rowley, a notorious producer of big-plays, caught three in this game, for 37, 20 and 55 yards, and accounted for two touchdowns.
"It's funny how this just wipes out all those bad times," said Rowley.
"We had two weeks to work for this," said Smith. "We practiced hard. We were ready. We all felt strong today."
McBride said that the Utes, frustrated by their lack of offense and the prospect of having to pitch a shutout every Saturday, had changed their offensive thinking. "Our philosophy on offense this game was to establish the pass first and then run second," he said. "When Richmond came in we were able to do that."
As Utah, now 3-4, heads into the toughest part of its season - three straight road games at Air Force, San Diego State and New Mexico followed by the season-finisher at home against BYU - they appear to have bullets in the gun, and to have balance.
It's possible that when the NCAA's national rankings come out Monday, Utah's defense and offense will have identical rankings. That's new territory for the Utes - they're at a point where it's hard to say which is better, to be on the field with the ball, or without it. Better yet, they're at a point where they won't have to cringe, whatever the case.