SALT LAKE CITY — A few minutes after the Utes gathered as one on the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium to sing “Utah Man” with the MUSS, following their 41-28 victory over USC, head coach Kyle Whittingham addressed the assembled media.
Among the things he said, unsolicited, about his team’s performance against the Trojans?
“Great effort … proud of our guys … balanced offense and suffocating defense. …”
One additional thing stood out from among the praise, however, “not a lot to nitpick.”
Earlier in the season there was plenty to nitpick when it came to the Utes’ performance on the field.
After Saturday’s resounding victory over the Trojans, the third straight convincing conference victory for the Utes, there isn’t much to nitpick at all.
Utah instead earned high marks all around — save for special teams that is — thanks to perhaps the team’s finest outing of the season.
Twenty-two completions on 29 passing attempts, 341 yards — tied for a career high — and four passing touchdowns.
That was Tyler Huntley’s line for the USC game, and it was by far his best this season. The junior quarterback, so often the subject of criticism early in the year, was simply sensational against the Trojans.
Case in point, Huntley completed a pass to nine different receivers. Each of his four touchdown passes went to a different target.
He added 33 rushing yards, and a score on the ground for good measure, in a performance that was about as good as it gets.
“He has improved in every area,” Whittingham said of his signal caller. “He’s running the ball very well, he is going through his pass progressions and putting the ball where it needs to be. He is making great decisions in the zone read game. He is taking care of the football, and he was close to 70 percent completion percentage (76 percent) tonight. He is doing everything right.”
It wasn’t a perfect evening for Huntley, his fumble in the first quarter led directly to a touchdown for USC, but even still the quarterback was top tier.
The Utes’ receiving corps, including the tight ends, were not far behind. Samson Nacua led all pass catchers with five receptions and was one of seven to record more than one catch. Britain Covey, meanwhile, led the group in yards gained with 79.
Covey also scored his first touchdown of the season, as did freshman wideout Solomon Enis and tight end Jake Jackson.
Drops were almost nonexistent, while big plays were aplenty. Five receivers/tight ends had catches that went 20 yards or more, led by Jaylen Dixon’s 49-yarder in the fourth quarter.
For once overshadowed by the passing attack, Utah’s run game was steady and effective. Zack Moss rushed for 136 yards on 25 carries. TJ Green added 19 yards on three carries, while Armand Shyne and Covey combined for an additional 17 yards on four touches.
“We did a good job running the football,” Whittingham said.
The offensive line, again with center Lo Falemaka, was excellent, save for a few breakdowns that led to sacks of Huntley.
It all went back to the quarterback Saturday night, however.
“Tyler did a great job running the offense, again, and he has really settled into a rhythm,” said Whittingham. “He is playing with a great deal of confidence.”
So are the Utes.
When asked about his defense’s performance, Whittingham put it best.
“The defense was suffocating. That was great to see. We have a lot of good players on that defense.”
The Utes’ defense was suffocating, final score notwithstanding and fluky touchdowns notwithstanding.
Utah was simply dominant against the Trojans, in all three levels of the defense at that.
Linebacker Chase Hansen and Cody Barton led the way, per the usual.
Hansen finished with 11 tackles, three for a loss, as well as an interception of USC quarterback JT Daniels.
Barton, meanwhile, had eight tackles.
Whittingham singled out the duo when asked about what makes this year’s defense unique compared against previous incarnations.
“We have a lot of good players, we don’t really have a weakness, but those linebacker are fast. Those two inside backers are both 4.5 (40-yard dash) guys. You can see them run down things that maybe in years past we wouldn’t have been able to run down.”
The Utes' defensive front was no less impressive against the Trojans. USC finished with just 73 total rushing yards on 31 carries. Defensive tackles Leki Fotu and John Penisini were largely responsible and received the majority of the playing time against the Trojans.
“The front is playing really well, and those two tackles that played most of the reps tonight, Leki and John, were outstanding tonight,” Whittingham said.
Fotu finished with four tackles, a sack and one and a half tackles for a loss, while Penisini had three tackles.
In addition to that duo, Whittingham singled out Bradlee Anae and Maxs Tupai, who finished with four and three tackles, respectively.
“Bradlee Anae is always good, and the emergence of Maxs Tupai is the more pleasant development of the season.”
If there was a weakness for the front it was late in the game, when they allowed Trojan quarterback Matt Fink to escape the pocket on a couple of occasions. Aside from that, the play of the line was superb.
The secondary was excellent as well, and aside from a desperation heave into the end zone in the first quarter, a heave Michael Pittman snagged despite double-coverage, USC’s longest pass play of the night was 12 yards.
The two USC quarterbacks, Daniels and Fink, combined to throw for just 134 yards and completed a little more than half of their passing attempts (12-32).
Javelin Guidry had a standout performance, as did Jaylon Johnson and Marquise Blair.
“Tonight, it was good across the board,” said Whittingham.
So often the Utes’ strength, special teams was a disappointment against the Trojans. Not at first, however.
Matt Gay connected on two field goals, both from 30-plus yards in the first half. Covey, meanwhile, had an impressive kickoff return for 38 yards.
Later though, Covey misread the flight of a punt and fumbled, a fumble USC would recover. After that, punter Mitch Wishnowsky had a punt blocked, which led to a USC touchdown.
Those two mistakes were more than enough for Whittingham.
“We had two special teams errors at the end that were inexcusable,” Whittingham said. “We turned the ball over on a punt return and we had the partially blocked punt, which should never happen. That is disappointing.
“The only negatives you can really find tonight are those special teams gaffes.”
The Utes played arguably their best game of the season against the Trojans, something that with each successive performance is more and more difficult to say.
The offense was balanced, effective and found the end zone time and again.
The defense, meanwhile, was its normal suffocating self.
Special teams was a disappoint, but altogether Utah thrived in the victory.8 comments on this story
“Overall, a big win for our program,” Whittingham said. “Every week is as big as the last or the next. It is one week after another. That is how this league is. That is the nature of this league. It is very competitive. You have to be ready to play every week.
“We came out and handled adversity when we got down 14-0. We didn’t flinch, we didn’t bat an eye. We had 34 unanswered points. It was a physical performance by our guys. Very physical on both sides of the football. They did a great job.”