The Utes completed their non-conference schedule this week in San Jose with a 17-point win over the San Jose State Spartans. Much like the Fresno State game last year, Utah started off slow in the 1st quarter, and eventually took over the game before halftime. Since 2011, Kyle Whittingham is 20-1 in non-conference games including bowl games. Don’t worry San Jose, you drop off Utah’s schedule in 2018.
One of the less promising results of this game was the slow start from the Utah offense. Yes, San Jose State was excited to play a PAC-12 team in Spartan stadium for the first time in 10 years. Yes, you can speak on the fact that Utah typically has a hangover effect from the Holy War. What really matters is that Utah came out a little flat to start the game. This was also the case against SUU and somewhat true against BYU. My point is that there has been a trend to slow offensive starts against the easiest portion of the 2016 schedule.
The slow start was mainly due to the fact that the scripted plays were fairly predictable. With minimal scouting, opponents can guess with a high probability what scripted plays offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick likes to call in order to feel out the defense. Utah had the ball for 5 minutes of the first 20 minutes of the game (3 possessions, 14 plays, 63 yards). One of the scripted plays went for 50+ yards of the 63 total yards (screen to Cory Butler-Byrd (WR)). Luckily, the SJSU punter returner muffed the punt which changed a bit of the momentum in the game up to that point. Minus the field goals and the Butler-Byrd screen, you are looking at 11 plays in which the offense gained just 12 yards against a below average Mountain West Conference team to start the game. I get that scripted plays are helpful in determining what the defense is doing in response to the offense, but I believe A-Rod could be a little more creative in the plays he chooses so that the offense isn’t hitting its stride mid-2nd quarter. If the slow starts continue, then it will not bode well for Utah in conference play.
Offense Continues To Grow
After the slow start, Utah made some good progress with the offense. Specifically, the running game was markedly improved, even with Joe Williams (RB) retiring in the previous week. True Freshman Zack Moss (RB) looked very good throughout the game. He played physical, smart football while emphasizing ball security, which has haunted Utah in the first few games. JC transfer Armand Shyne (RB), who wears number 23, showed shades of Devontae Booker with the way he sought out contact with the defender, and played with a similar physicality. Troy McCormick (RB) also looked great in the reps he took. All three running backs brought something a little different to the table and showed that each could contribute.
Troy Williams (QB) also showed signs of improvement. Troy has played fairly well throughout the first 3 games, with the exception of a few extremely poor decisions to force the ball into triple coverage. Against SJSU, Troy seemed a little more settled, more patient in the pocket, and did not force the ball nearly as much as the previous two games. He had one interception at the goal line which was a little aggressive, but I believe it was a better play made by the defensive player rather than an egregious lapse in judgement by Troy. The progress Troy has made in the first 3 games is a promising sign for the Utah offense. Utah will need to Troy to play at a high level going forward if they want to make noise in conference play.
The offensive line also made improvements week over week. There were less penalties, more push in the run game, and overall more physicality by the offensive line. This led to more room for the running backs to break to the second and third levels of the defense. Specifically, Garett Bolles (LT) is starting to figure out the position just in time for conference play. Utah’s success in conference play will directly correlate to the success of the offensive line.
Sack Lake City
There is no justification or rationalization needed to make this next statement. Utah’s defense is elite. Even with losing Stevie Tuikolovatu (transfer) and Kylie Fitts (foot injury), Utah’s defensive line has been absolutely dominant. Now SJSU isn’t USC, but 10 sacks in a game is not just a fluke due to lesser talent. The Utes now rank 2nd in the country in total sacks with 15 sacks through three games. Utah’s defensive line should continue to wreak havoc on offenses in the PAC 12. It was also great for Utah to get true freshmen Bradlee Anae (DE) and Leki Fotu (DT) on the field for some live reps before conference play. Those freshmen will be leaned on even more with Kylie Fitts (DE) out for the season.
Utah’s back seven has been nearly as dominant as the defensive line. The linebackers have fit in very well in both stopping the run and coverage. The Utah secondary has played pretty well with Dominique Hatfield still listed day-to-day. Brian Allen (DB) has competed well with the opponents taller wide receivers. If Allen can keep up the high-level play, he will be invaluable against wide receivers like Juju Smith-Schuster (USC), Trey Griffey (UofA), and Darren Carrington (UO). SJSU made a few plays against the corners, but overall the Utah secondary played very well. Also, RIP San Jose QB Kenny Potter AKA The Boy Who Lived.
At the end of the day, Utah took care of business. The offense made adjustments, blew out San Jose State in the air and on the ground, and the Utah defense overwhelmed a mid-major team. Utah is 3-0 going into conference play with a solid foundation and room to grow. Should be fun to see how this Utah team fares against other PAC-12 teams.
Grade = B+