SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s offense is on the rise in Pac-12 play. The 23rd-ranked Utes have increased yardage and the number of first downs in each of their five conference games this season.
The climb includes growing efficiency in the passing game. Quarterback Tyler Huntley has completed 53 of 69 passes for 741 yards and eight touchdowns during Utah’s current three-game win streak. He was 32 of 58 for 256 yards with no passing touchdowns in losses to Washington and Washington State.
Huntley insists the change is due to improved execution and nothing different.
“It’s a matter of us putting it all together and that’s what has been happening,” said Huntley, who joined teammates Chase Hansen and Matt Gay in being named Pac-12 Players of the Week for their performances in Saturday’s 41-28 victory over USC.
While contributions have come in all three phases, it’s the offense that has shown the most dramatic improvement. Huntley and company had five scoring drives in Utah’s first two Pac-12 games and 20 over the past three.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged he’s “very happy” with how things are going. He considers the USC game to be the best of Huntley’s career. The junior threw for 341 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for 33 yards and a score, contributing mightily to the 541 yards of total offense the Utes racked up against the Trojans.
“Tyler’s been very good with his reads and being patient in the pocket. And so, I think you just combine all of those, plus maybe as much as anything is the run game. People have to respect the run game. Usually the throw game is a benefactor of that,” Whittingham said. “But in years past we have had a strong run game and haven’t been able to get the ball thrown with the efficiency we needed. So, that’s not always the case but that has certainly helped this year.”
Whittingham noted that running back Zack Moss did a great job against USC, netting 136 yards on 25 carries.
“So when they have to pack the box to try to stop the run game, that opens up options in the throw,” Whittingham explained. “Then, also we’re getting very proficient in the RPO game. That’s something that is a strength of Tyler's.”
The Utes, he added, are getting a lot of mileage out of that.
“The blueprint that we have had the last several weeks has been very productive and we hope that we can continue that. In our estimation, when we are at our best, that is who we are — what you have seen in the last three games,” Whittingham said. “We know not every week is going to be like that. Some weeks you are going to have to run more, some you are going to have to pass more, but the last few weeks have been very balanced. It has been ideal as far as what we are looking for."
Utah has 805 yards passing and 652 rushing over the wins over Stanford (40-21), Arizona (42-10) and USC.
Whittingham said the catalyst for the offense, in general, is the line. He credits them for providing very good protection. The Utes have done so without starting center Lo Falemaka. Sophomore Orlando Umana has stepped in since the senior captain has been sidelined by injury.
Senior left tackle Jackson Barton said Umana has been doing a really good job filling in for Falemaka.
As for the recent improvement by the offense, Barton said it could have something to do getting the early season jitters out of their system.
“Maybe it was just confidence issues. I don’t know, per se,” Barton explained. “For the most part, you can’t really control like what every individual person is thinking or feeling. But I noticed after the Washington State game we really like talked about it and tightened up as a group and saying we need to get this thing rolling because we can’t afford to lose another game. And so I think that mentality of just having our back up against the wall has been great for us so far.”
Hansen, from his perspective as a linebacker, noted how nice it is to have the offense and defense clicking at the same time.
“Sometimes it just takes until mid-season to really maybe get an identity or whatever it may be,” he said. “But I knew we had a really good offense from the beginning of the year. We all did. We understand what they were capable of and they’ve shown it the last three weeks — that they can do it every week.”17 comments on this story
Fewer drops by the receivers have also been a factor in the improving numbers by the offense. Utah currently ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (30.3 ppg), rushing offense (187.9 ypg) and pass efficiency offense (149.29 rating). The Utes have scored 40 or more points in three straight games for the first time since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
The rise of the offense complements a unit that leads the nation in rushing defense (74.6 ypg) and sits atop the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense (108.53 rating) and total defense (286.4 ypg).
No. 23 Utah (5-2, 3-2) at UCLA (2-5, 2-2)
Rose Bowl — Pasadena, California
Friday, 8:30 p.m. (MT)
Radio: ESPN 700AM