It’s about that time again. Summer nights are getting cooler, kids are back in school, and Ute football is back. The University of Utah opens up its season against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks. The game will be held Thursdday at 5:30 p.m. MDT.
The Utes finished 9-4 last season and will look to get off to a hot start. North Dakota is no cakewalk; the Fighting Eagles are ranked 10th in the FCS polls and coming off an impressive 9-3 record last season.
Here are six numbers you need to know for the Utes as they prepare to open their season.
The Utes’ biggest news of the summer was the naming of Tyler Huntley as the starting quarterback. This game will mark Huntley’s first start of his collegiate career. Last season, Huntley appeared in just four games as a true freshman, completing 5 of 7 passes for 60 yards. This will be a good opportunity as the weakest part of North Dakota’s defense was its ability to defend the pass. The Fighting Eagles had an FCS ranking of 107th in pass yards given up per game, and allowed 25 touchdowns through the air. If the Utes were looking to ease Huntley into action, this might have been the perfect time.
The addition of speedster Darren Carrington might help Huntley transition as well. Carrington comes to the Utes as a graduate transfer. You might remember him as the player who broke Ute fans’ hearts as he scored the winning touchdown with two seconds left for a poor Oregon Ducks team last season. Carrington led the Ducks in receiving yards with 606 on 43 receptions. Carrington also had an impressive 14.1 yards per reception last season. Perhaps the most exciting news for Ute fans is that many would consider his last season a disappointment. In his first two seasons with the Ducks, Carrington had an outstanding 19.0 yards per reception. The Utah passing game has a legitimate deep threat in its arsenal.
As poor as North Dakota’s pass defense was last season, its rush defense was great. The Fighting Eagles gave up only 91.3 rush yards a game in last season’s contests. More impressively was their ability to defend each rush allowing less than 3 yards per carry. Now the Fighting Eagles only had one FBS team on their schedule last season, the Bowling Green Falcons. However, Bowling Green averaged over 180 rush yards per game, and North Dakota was able to limit it to only 88 yards on the ground. North Dakota put on an impressive comeback in that game as well, losing by a score of 27-26.
As good as the Fighting Eagles were on stopping the run last season, the Utes were equally as good on the offensive side of the ball. Utah averaged an impressive 214 yards per game on the ground. The departure of Joe Williams and four key offensive linemen might make it difficult to reproduce those numbers. This matchup will be something to watch in order to see how Zack Moss and company can handle the workload.
That number is not a typo. New offensive coordinator Troy Taylor should have Ute fans excited. As the play caller for Eastern Washington last year, the Eagles' offense was unstoppable. Eastern Washington led the FCS in total yards passing at 5,614 on the season, which equals out to 401 yards a game. Compare that to Utah’s pass offense of just 2,817 total yards last season at only 216 yards a game. Also, the Eastern Washington Eagles threw for 54 touchdowns last season, Utah had 15.
This would not be a quality Utah article without mentioning the University of Utah special teams. The Utes' total net punting yards for the season was 44.63. That number was good enough for first in the nation. Mitch Wishnowsky and his Australian foot was named the top punter of the year and a unanimous All-American selection. Never underestimate the power of special teams. Punters are people too.
Prediction: Utah won’t overlook North Dakota, but it might also hold a few cards close to the chest as the Utes prepare for the heated in-state rival coming up. Look for Utah to win comfortably. Utah 37, North Dakota 17.
Bonus prediction: Utah downs at least one punt inside the 5-yard line.
Cameron Wood is a graduate of Weber State University and a teacher and coach at St. Joseph Catholic High School in Ogden, Utah. Email: [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @camwood03.