SALT LAKE CITY — Throughout October it seemed finally the Utah offense had found its way. It scored 40-plus points in four consecutive games and dominated opposing defenses, putting the Utes in position to win the Pac-12 South.
Now that two of their three biggest offensive stars are likely out for the season, they have one option. The same one they’ve been using since, oh, forever: be as impenetrable as the Walls of Constantinople on defense and hope for a couple of big plays on offense.
Otherwise, the Utes will end up where they were last year, in a bowl game expressly designed for teams that can’t surpass .500.
Thousand-yard rusher Zack Moss reportedly injured his knee in practice Wednesday, and is expected to miss the rest of the season. In five days the Utes have lost their starting quarterback and their top running back. That leaves one standout offensive player, receiver Britain Covey, who would probably be listed as backup quarterback to Jason Shelley, if he weren’t needed so badly at wideout.
The way things are shaping up, Covey might be the only player left on offense. He can pass, catch, run and return. If Shelley goes down, the Utes might need Covey to do all of them at once.
Backup running back Armand Shyne is actually better than the starter on some teams. He has carried 37 times for 166 yards this season. Injuries cost him all but five games the last two years. He was leading the team in rushing in 2016 before his injury.
The Utes are depleted, but not destitute.
It’s possible Shyne will shine. Last week he rushed for 13 yards on two carries against Arizona State. In that game, starting quarterback Tyler Huntley broke his shoulder and will miss the rest of the regular season.
Moss has rushed for over 1,000 yards two straight seasons, 128 of them against ASU this year. Eddie Johnson, Devontae Booker and John White are three other Utes who had two 1,000-yard seasons. Moss surpassed 100 yards in six games this year.
It must be exasperating for him to carry for all those yards, but get felled in practice.
Kyle Whittingham has stressed he has complete confidence in Shelley. The redshirt freshman did have a spectacular prep career. But the onus of carrying Utah through games with Oregon, Colorado and BYU shouldn’t be on Shelley’s shoulders.
It should be on the defense.
Shelley will be learning on the fly; the defense has been here all along.
Utah has always been a defense-first team. Even in a season in which the Utes have been in the Pac-12’s upper half offensively, the defense has been nationally ranked. But last Saturday there was no indication where that unit went. The Utes gave up 536 yards and 38 points.
The defense is straining just when it needs to be immovable.
Linebacker Chase Hansen said, "We've got to come together. We can't let this affect team morale, momentum and confidence. We have to understand that we are still a good football team. A really good football team and we've got to play like it. So we've got to come together and fix some things."10 comments on this story
That actually was before Moss was injured. But it's now truer than ever.
It’s not like Utah’s defense is incapable of salvaging the season. It’s still the nation’s No. 1 red-zone defense and No. 9 in rushing defense. The Utes will need it. This week’s opponent, Oregon, scored 41 points in last year’s game.
Though media availability ends on Tuesday for Whittingham and his players, here is what he will say when he does address the Moss injury: “Next man up.”
The way things are going, he couldn't be blamed for saying, “Pray for us.”