SALT LAKE CITY — Previously injured quarterback Tyler Huntley was back to himself on Friday night in Utah’s 48-17 win over UCLA.
Which is to say he was out there all the way.
This man has two gears: forward and reverse — no neutral whatsoever.
Just when it seemed the Utes had taken their last serious shot at bowl eligibility, Huntley got his game all the way back. And he brought the team with him. That’s how it’s supposed to be, right? If the quarterback is on his game, others follow.
If everyone played like Huntley, Utah would long ago have qualified for a bowl game. As it is, they’re still one win shy. But the four-game losing streak is over. The Utes sent UCLA back to Los Angeles in a hearse. This was a group effort, but there was no doubt who was driving the momentum.
So a bowl game is peeking back into the picture. Utah needs to win one of its remaining three games. Judging by the margin of victory Friday, there’s still gas in Utah’s tank.
After two sub-par games by the Utes, Huntley looked fully recovered from the shoulder injury that caused him to miss two and a half games early in the season.
To say Huntley is unrestrained is an understatement. Last week, after a loss to Oregon, he brought the press conference to a halt by describing his feelings in R-rated detail. He didn’t appear to be trying to be vulgar — in fact, he quickly apologized — but it was the first thing that came to mind.
His and a lot of others’.
Huntley’s style is nothing if not committed. He’ll throw an interception — he had four against Arizona State — but he’ll never retreat into the fetal position. So it went on Friday. It took a quarter, but then he was off and running and passing. He tossed a 27-yard fade to Darren Carrington to put Utah up 14-3 in the second quarter. But it was the third quarter when he went off. On the first play of the second half, he spotted a wide-open Troy McCormick for a 75-yard score. (Who didn’t?) Later he connected on a 43-yard throw to Siaosi Wilson, then hit McCormick on another scoring pass, putting Utah up 38-10.
By the end of the third quarter he had 232 passing yards, three touchdowns and 75 yards rushing. He added a short rollout pass for a score with 3:27 left in the game, giving him four scoring passes.
What Huntley lacks in execution he makes up for in creativity. Just try guessing where he’s going. Even he doesn’t always know. The first quarter was entirely predictable for two teams that had three conference wins between them. There were two delay penalties, four timeouts and a fumble. The latter fell in Utah’s favor, setting the Utes up on the UCLA 16, which carried over into a touchdown.
UCLA pulled out all the stops, knowing the loser will probably miss a bowl game. That included a wide receiver pass, a reverse and some oddly placed timeouts.
Seventeen minutes into the game, Utah had only 46 yards of offense. One drive included an ineligible receiver, a false start and a holding penalty, followed by a punt.
Huntley was unfazed.
Luckily for the Utes, UCLA was in irregular mode. The Bruins were whistled for an illegal participation penalty when a player went out of bounds and returned to action — not unlike the crowd, which was into it, then out, then back in.
Throughout, Huntley was wholly entertaining. He makes plays and misses them, but rarely fails to put on a show. Confidence isn’t his problem. He throws darts and wounded ducks and everything in between. He loses ground, gains back yards, throws going away from the play, and tucks and runs.
He has the kind of swagger Utah has lacked under center for years.
The Utes may yet miss a bowl game. Washington, Washington State and Colorado are all losable contests. But Utah will face those games with a leader who expects to win. After a month of losses in October, he had the fan base thinking the same.