SALT LAKE CITY — Following an ugly victory over Northern Illinois, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham spoke to the fact that his team knew where it needed to improve. The Utes knew they had to catch balls better, eliminate drops. They knew they needed to improve along the offensive line, eliminate sacks. They knew they needed to get Zack Moss more carries and they knew they had to be better on special teams.
“Yes, Zack Moss probably should have got a few more carries than he did,” Whittingham said at his Monday press conference. “No, the offensive line didn’t perform very well. They need to get better. We know we had too many drops in the game — four or five drops that were drive-killers. … And yes, our special teams was disappointing again — the second week in a row.”
After Saturday night's game against the Huskies, a contest Utah lost 21-7, some of those issues have been resolved. Others, appear to have gotten worse. Regardless, the grades are in and the Utes still have work to do.
Drops, drops and more drops.
Dropped passes were the Achilles heel of the offense Saturday night. Drops consistently killed any chance the Utes had at effectively attacking the Huskies, stalling drive after drive after drive.
“That is probably our biggest issue right now,” Whittingham said. “We are dropping passes, and those are drive-killers.”
The list of Utah skill position players who dropped passes is long. Demari Simpkins, Bronson Boyd, Jaylen Dixon, Moss, Cole Fotheringham, Connor Haller and Brant Kuithe all had at least one drop, some more than one.
Even more worrisome, many of those drops came at the least opportune moments, none more so than Haller’s. The sophomore dropped what seemed to be a surefire touchdown on a 4th-and-1 play from the two yard line, late in the fourth quarter.
“It was wide-open, and we had another drop,” Whittingham said.
The many miscues in the passing game contributed to what was, statistically, a poor outing for quarterback Tyler Huntley.
Huntley finished the game with 138 total yards passing and an interception, having completed just 20 of 38 attempts.
Whittingham believed Huntley was much better than those statistics, however.
“I thought Tyler actually threw the ball pretty good tonight, most of the time,” he said. “There were a couple of throws that weren’t ideal, but he certainly threw the ball better than his numbers might indicate.”
The Utes' rushing attack, meanwhile, was arguably the best it has been all year. Moss was effective, rushing for 67 yards and a score, on a total of 13 carries, which was good for an average of 5.2 yard per touch.
Making his effort all the more impressive was the fact that he remains hampered by an injury.
“He is not right,” Whittingham said of his tailback. “We are trying to get everything out of him that we can and he is giving everything that he can give. He’s just not right “
In addition to Moss, Armand Shyne was excellent in the limited opportunities he had, rushing for 14 yards on just two carries.
Even Huntley, often a subject of vitriol for his tendency to run the ball, reeled off a few impressive carries, none more so than a 28-yard scramble that set up the Utes' only touchdown.
Then there was the much maligned offensive line.
The line played significantly better than in previous weeks — Huntley was sacked just two times — and was a real bright spot.
“I thought the O-line played much better,” said Whittingham. “I thought Nick Ford did a great job at right tackle. We were down our starting right tackle tonight and (Ford) played the whole game, start to finish. He wasn’t perfect, but he did a good job for a redshirt freshman.”
Not to be forgotten were the turnovers. Huntley threw an ill-timed interception to end the first half, while both Britain Covey and Boyd fumbled the ball away to the opposition.
All told, the offense was simply not good at much Saturday night. When it was, it undid it’ own success.
“We hurt ourselves in various situations,” said Huntley. “There were a lot of things that played a part in that and we just had bad drive killers.
Where the offense struggled, the defense excelled. That has been the story each game so far this season, and that was again the case against Washington.
The Utes' defense was excellent against the Huskies. Utah allowed only 327 yards of total offense, 172 on the ground, 155 through the air.
“We played pretty good defense,” said Whittingham. “We gave up 320-something yards and 17 or 18 first downs. If you were to tell me before the game that they would get 21 points, 18 first downs and 320 yards, I’d say we would have a pretty good chance to win.”
The defensive line was able to pressure Washington quarterback Jake Browning often enough, forcing him to connect on just 14 of 24 passes for 155 yards and an interception.
Leading that particular group was Mika Tafua. The freshman defensive end finished the game with five tackles and the team’s only sack. Also making a noticeable impact were John Penisini, Leki Fotu and Pita Tonga. Tonga recorded the Utes' only interception of the night and would have had a touchdown. Unfortunately, he bobbled the ball harmlessly out of bounds after rumbling 28 yards down the field.
The secondary, meanwhile, made plays throughout the night, whether it be Javelin Guidry, Julian Blackmon, Terrell Burgess or Marquise Blair. Blair in particular had an excellent game, that is before he was called for a targeting penalty and subsequently ejected.
The linebacker corps was solid as well, with Chase Hansen and Cody Barton both finishing with a team-high 11 tackles (fellow linebacker Donovan Thompson had eight of his own).
The Utes; defense did struggle against the Huskies' run game, particularly running back Myles Gaskin. For much of the first half, Gaskin had his way with the Utes and he finished the contest with 143 yards on 30 carries. The defense tightened up in the second half, however.
“I thought the defense played pretty good,” Barton said. “We needed to come up with more takeaways, make some more big plays, more impact plays, but we played pretty good. Towards the end (of the game) we were stopping them pretty quick, but we need to figure out a way to do that at the beginning of games.”
For the first time this season, Utah’s special teams were a plus. Interestingly enough it had nothing to do with Matt Gay — he didn’t even get to attempt a field goal.
Instead, it was Covey in the punt return game, as well as his blockers — there wasn’t a fumble on a punt return — not to mention punter Mitch Wishnowsky.
Covey had five punt returns on the night, and totaled 77 yards for an average of 15.4 yards per return. To put that into context, his freshman year, when he was Pac-12 honorable mention, Covey average 11.7 yards per return.
Covey’s impact in the return game was such that it was the first thing Whittingham talked about in the post game press conference.
“It was good to get Britain Covey going on punt returns,” Whittingham said. “That was a positive tonight.”
Wishnowsky, meanwhile, looked comfortable for the first time this season.
He punted the ball five times, averaging 45.6 yards per punt. His long was a 56-yarder and he dropped two punts inside the 20-yard line, including one inside the five.
Overall, Utah’s special teams were a plus, something that had been lacking in each of the first two games.
Utah lost a winnable game. The Utes were right there with the Huskies, as they have been in years past.11 comments on this story
The defense again was stout, even when considering Gaskin's dominant first half. The defensive line continues to show itself capable, the secondary remains impressive and the linebackers are tackling machines.
Offensively, however, Utah is a mess. There are positives — the O-line was improved and the running game was more than serviceable — but for whatever reason the Utes failed to execute when they needed to the most.
“We had some chances. Bottom line, we had some chances and didn’t capitalize,” said Whittingham. “When you play a team that good you had better capitalize on those opportunities — the ones you do get — and we didn’t do that.”