We’ve got some momentum going into the offseason which was good to see. That’s a big plus for us. —Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — Although Utah’s 2017 football season ended with some positives — a 34-13 win over Colorado on Nov. 25 and a 30-14 victory over West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl — it won’t go in the books as completely satisfying to head coach Kyle Whittingham.
As far as he is concerned, there was a lot of frustration associated with the 7-6 campaign. Specifically, some close games where the Utes came up short.
“That really was the difference from having it be a really good season to really frustrating,” Whittingham said, "is we weren’t able to win those close ballgames.”
The narrow setbacks included home losses to Stanford (23-20) and Washington State (33-25), as well as road contests at USC (28-27) and Washington (33-30).
Utah went 7-2, otherwise. The Utes wound up extending their streak of bowl appearances and winning seasons to four years.
“I’m proud of how our guys hung in there. I was particularly proud of the seniors, the leaders on the football team because when you have two or three of those really close disheartening losses that can take its toll,” Whittingham said. “But our guys showed a lot of resiliency and a lot of fight and a lot of determination.”
Besides the losses to Stanford, USC, Washington State and Washington, the Utes dropped lopsided decisions to Arizona State (30-10) and Oregon (41-20). Their victories came against North Dakota (37-16), BYU (19-13), San Jose State (54-16), Arizona (30-24), UCLA (48-17), plus the Colorado and West Virginia games.
The latter two, which closed things out, were especially beneficial.
“We’ve got some momentum going into the offseason which was good to see,” Whittingham said. “That’s a big plus for us.”
OFFENSE: All things considered, Whittingham said the offense started to get some traction over the second half of the season.
“I think that we started to look like the offense that we want to be,” he continued. “We need to pick up where we left off going into spring and into this fall because I think there’s a lot of positives that happened during the course of the season.”
Whittingham noted that Zack Moss topped 1,000 yards rushing and that dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley was very good when healthy. He added that the offensive line (which lost four players to the NFL after the 2016 season) got better as the season progressed and was pleased that the passing game numbers improved.
The latter, Whittingham explained, was a primary objective under new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor.
Utah wound up seventh in the Pac-12 with 249.4 passing yards per game. The Utes finished eighth in total offense (413.4 ypg) and ninth in scoring offense (29.5 ppg).
Individually, Huntley finished third — behind UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold — in total offense (294.8 ypg). The sophomore won the starting job in fall camp, winning a competition that featured returning starter Troy Williams and Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman.
Darren Carrington II was second in the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game (81.7) and Moss wound up eighth in rushing yards per game (90.2).
Whittingham identified two areas of concern with the offense — red-zone production (just 33 touchdowns — 52.3 percent — on 63 opportunities inside the 20) and third-down conversions (12th, 35.2 percent).
“Those are our points of emphasis for the offseason,” he said.
DEFENSE: The Utes ranked among the Pac-12 leaders in numerous categories. They were second in pass efficiency defense (113.4 rating); third in opponent rushing defense (131.3 ypg), opponent first downs (17.5), scoring defense (23.2 ppg) and total defense (338.4 ypg); fourth in pass defense (207.1 ypg); and fifth in opponent third-down conversions (37.8 percent).
“I thought the defense played well and played consistently for the entire season,” Whittingham said. “Our statistics were good. We were in the top third in the conference in just about every category, generated a lot of takeaways which is huge.”
The Utes finished the season with 14 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries.
Individual leaders included sophomore cornerback Julian Blackmon (four interceptions) and junior linebacker Cody Barton (three fumble recoveries). Sophomore defensive end Bradlee Anae was a major contributor up front with a team-high seven sacks and three forced fumbles. Senior linebackers Kavika Luafatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli topped the team with 82 tackles and 10 tackles for loss, respectively.
In the secondary, Blackmon and true freshman Jaylon Johnson recorded six pass breakups apiece.
“I thought the pass defense was very good,” Whittingham said. “When you talk about a complete rebuild in the secondary that was a great effort by those players back there and our coaches to rebuild the secondary and still have the positive results that we got.”
Utah’s sack production, though, was down. The Utes ranked ninth in the conference with 25.
Whittingham acknowledged things weren’t as good as they have usually been.
“So that’s something that we’ve got to address,” he said.
SPECIAL TEAMS: It all starts with kicking. Junior Matt Gay won the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker. The consensus All-American led the nation with 27 field goals. He averaged 10 points per game. Junior Mitch Wishnowsky, who won the Ray Guy Award in 2016 and was a finalist this time around, was also named an All-American.
“We do an analysis every year of every phase of special teams — punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return and field goal — and we came out as the No. 1 special teams in the conference, again,” Whittingham said. “I think that’s been a few years running now. So I’m proud of the way our guys compete and perform on special teams.”
Utah was first in the Pac-12 in net punting (42.2 yards), field goals (30 of 35) and PATs (40 of 40). The Utes placed fourth in punt returns (10.11 yards). Kickoff returns (18 yards) and kickoff coverage (38.2 yards) ranked 11th and 12th, respectively.
“Always room for improvement. Our return games can get better and kickoff coverage at times wasn’t as good as it needed to be,” Whittingham said. “But we feel that we once again had a very strong special teams unit and that’s a tribute to our players and just the effort that they put into it.”
Senior Boobie Hobbs was second in the conference in punt returns (11.2 yards).
LOOK AHEAD: Whittingham is optimistic about the season ahead.
“We feel like we’ve got a good group coming back. Four of our five starting offensive linemen are back, virtually the entire secondary is coming back,” he said. “We did take a hit up front on the defensive line with those three seniors (Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi and Kylie Fitts) that were so good for us for all those years.
“But when you look at it overall, I think we have a chance to turn out to be a pretty good football team,” he continued. “We’ll see how hard we work in the offseason.”
There have been some changes already with cornerback Casey Hughes (Michigan) and wide receiver Raelon Singleton opting to leave the program as graduate transfers.
A big addition is the return of former defensive coordinator Gary Andersen, who went on to become the head coach at Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State. He’ll serve as associate head coach and a defensive assistant.
“It’s great to have Gary back on staff. He's one of the best defensive line coaches in the country,” Whittingham said. “He’s excited to be back in that role and be able to have a position group along with Lewis Powell. Those two guys will handle the defensive front.”
Whittingham added that Andersen is a great resource to have in the office, much like Dennis Erickson and Dave Christensen — assistants with head coaching experience.
"They are the only guys that really get that position and understand what it’s about and really offer some valuable advice,” Whittingham said.
On the field, Whittingham feels good about the recruiting class the Utes are assembling. The early signing period was headlined by highly touted Southern California prep quarterback Jack Tuttle.
“We’ve got just a few scholarships left to finish it off, just a few on each side of the ball, and it’s shaping up to be a good class — addressing our needs which is really the main emphasis in the recruiting classes,” Whittingham said.
Utah’s bid to win its first outright Pac-12 South title faces a few new challenges this fall. Three teams in the division have new head coaches — Herm Edwards (Arizona State), Chip Kelly (UCLA) and Kevin Sumlin (Arizona).
“There’s a bunch of good coaches in this league and we added some really good ones this year and lost some really good ones,” Whittingham said. “There were some good coaches that are no longer in place. It’s a tough profession. But it’s exciting and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
2017 RESULTS (7-6, 3-6)
Aug. 31 — NORTH DAKOTA, Won 37-16
Sept. 9 — at BYU, Won 19-13
Sept. 16 — SAN JOSE STATE, Won 54-16
Sept. 22 — at Arizona, Won 30-24
Oct. 7 — STANFORD, Lost 23-20
Oct. 14 — at USC, Lost 28-27
Oct. 21 — ARIZONA STATE, Lost 30-10
Oct. 28 — at Oregon, Lost 41-20
Nov. 3 — UCLA, Won 48-17
Nov. 11 — WASHINGTON STATE, Lost 33-25
Nov. 18 — at Washington, Lost 33-30
Nov. 25 — COLORADO, Won 34-13
Dec. 26 —West Virginia, Won 30-14 *
* Heart of Dallas Bowl
Aug. 30 — WEBER STATE
Sept. 8 — at Northern Illinois
Sept. 15 — WASHINGTON
Sept. 29 — at Washington State
Oct. 6 — at Stanford
Oct. 12 — ARIZONA
Oct. 20 — USC
Oct. 26 — at UCLA
Nov. 3 — at Arizona State
Nov. 10 — OREGON
Nov. 17 — at Colorado
Nov. 24 — BYU
2017 STATISTICAL LEADERS
All-purpose yards: Zack Moss — 1,416
Passing yards: Tyler Huntley — 2,411
Receiving yards: Darren Carrington II — 980
Rushing yards: Zack Moss — 1,173
Total offense: Tyler Huntley — 3,485 yards
Touchdowns: Zack Moss — 10
Scoring: Matt Gay — 130
Forced fumbles: Bradlee Anae — 3
Fumble recoveries: Cody Barton — 3
Interceptions: Julian Blackmon — 4
Pass breakups: Julian Blackmon, Jaylon Johnson — 6
Sacks: Bradlee Anae — 7
Tackles: Kavika Luafatasaga — 82
Tackles for loss: Sunia Tauteoli — 10
Punting: Mitch Wishnowsky — 2,282 yards
OL — Salesi Uhatafe
WR — Darren Carrington II
WR — Raelon Singleton
QB — Troy Williams
TE — Harrison Handley
TE — Siale Fakailoatonga
RB — Troy McCormick
DE — Kylie Fitts
DL — Filipo Mokofisi
DL — Lowell Lotulelei
LB — Sunia Tauteoli
LB — Kavika Luafatasaga
CB — Casey Hughes
NB — Boobie Hobbs
OL — Jackson Barton
C — Lo Falemaka
OL — Jordan Agasiva
OL — Darrin Paulo
WR — Britain Covey*
WR — Samson Nacua
WR — Siaosi Wilson
WR — Demari Simpkins
RB — Zack Moss
DT — Leki Fotu
LB — Donavan Thompson
LB — Cody Barton
FS — Corrion Ballard
FS — Marquise Blair
SS — Chase Hansen
CB — Julian Blackmon
CB — Jaylon Johnson
NB — Javelin Guidry
PK — Matt Gay
P — Mitch Wishnowsky
*LDS mission returnee
QB — Jack Tuttle
OL — Braeden Daniels
LB — Bryant Pirtle
DL — Jeremiah Jordan
WR — Terrell Perriman
DB — Malone Mataele
DB — Vonte Davis