There was a lot to be excited about last Thursday night in Rice-Eccles Stadium. Sound system enhancements, monstrous video board, and ACTUAL FOOTBALL! It was great to be back in the sea of red cheering on Utah, even though the crowd atmosphere felt like a scrimmage rather than the first game on the season schedule. FCS opponent Southern Utah played their hearts out, and left the field with their heads held high knowing they left it all on the field. They also left the field with no points (zing).
The beginning of the game was more worrisome than the latter portions of the game. The defensive line seems to be struggling with the SUU offensive blocking schemes, resulting in multiple long runs by SUU RB Malik Brown and QB McCoy Hill. The linebackers were particularly exposed as the side-to-side run plays tested Cody Barton (LB) and Sunia Tauteoli (LB) speed to fill the gaps left open by the defensive line. That could be a reoccurring theme as teams try to expose the weakest position of the Utah defense (linebacker).
Once the defense adjusted midway through the first half, they became pretty stout. The defensive line began to get pressure on the quarterback and stop the run pretty well. Cody Barton (LB) also adjusted well and finished the game with a team-high 11 tackles. The secondary, for the most part, wasn’t really tested. The few times SUU threw the ball downfield, the secondary shut it down. SUU QBs McCoy Hill and Tannon Pedersen combined for 6-18 on 42 yards passing. RIP their QBRs.
BREAKING NEWS: UTAH CAN PASS THE FOOTBALL
When was the last time Utah fans really felt comfortable with a QB throwing the football downfield? Brian Johnson 2008 Sugar Bowl team? Alex Smith 2004 Fiesta Bowl team? Even though the opponent was FCS, the confidence and accuracy of QB Troy Williams just about brought tears to the eyes of the Utah fans around me in the stadium. AND THE STEPPING UP IN THE POCKET! The quarterback play from Troy Williams was the highlight of the game. Troy finished 20-35, 272 yards and 2 TDs with vanilla play-calling. He’ll have to sure up a few things going into conference play, but he was a breathe of fresh air for the Utah fan base.
On a more concerning note, the offensive line struggled throughout the game. False starts. Low snaps. Sacks. Giving up hits on the QB. It was mostly bad from the offensive line. Yes, there are excuses for the poor play. Sam Tevi moved from LT to RT. JJ Deilman moved from G to C. Garett Bolles (LT) is new this year. But the fact that an FCS defensive line was breaking through as often as they were was concerning. In the bigger picture, it is better that the kinks get worked out against SUU rather than USC. Offensive line coach Jim Harding will earn his pay this week, and I’m sure most of the mistakes will be corrected by week 2.
Other notes from the offense and special teams. Troy McCormick (RB) looked to be the best running back on the field. Armand Shyne (RB) ran hard in the minutes he was given. Starter Joe Williams (RB) struggled quite a bit. Joe seemed to be less aggressive than I remember him last year. He also fumbled the football, which is treasonous in the eyes of Kyle Whittingham. It will be interesting to see if the running back depth chart moves at all before week 2.
Special teams were promising. Mitch Wishnowsky (P) looked great, which is saying a lot given he is replacing the greatest punter on the face of the Earth - Tom Hackett.
It is easy to knit-pick this game as everyone expected perfection given the FCS opponent. When I re-watched the game, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was in the stadium. This game will give the coaches ammo to coach up their players and refine their position groups. Plus, teams usually grow the most between weeks one and two anyway. The mistakes will also humble the team somewhat and help them to re-focus before the rival game. I expect Utah, especially the offensive line, to play much better against the Team Down South.