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SALT LAKE CITY — When we last checked in with the Utes, the team was in the midst of a gutting four-game losing streak that included two lopsided losses against Arizona State and Oregon, a heartbreaker against USC and a perfect-season spoiler against Stanford.
Crucially, the team has rebounded since. Utah finished 2-2 in the month of November to earn a fourth consecutive bowl engagement, with options ranging from the Texas and Liberty Bowl in Tennessee to the Birmingham and Independence Bowl in Louisiana.
In looking back, Utah’s season was as hot-and-cold as any in recent memory. The Utes started fast, faltered in the middle and ended with a split in their final four games en route to their worst season since 2013. If their season were illustrated on a line chart, the trendline tracing their 12 performances would read like a heart monitor: sporadically traveling to points high and low along a vertical course on the y-axis.
Let’s unpack the last four games to conclude Playing in Thirds.
View from the clubhouse
Overall record: 6-6 (W1)
Conference record: 3-6
AP rank: N/A
Passing rank: 44th
Rushing rank: 70th
Unit MVP: Zack Moss (RB)
Key injuries: Armand Shyne (RB)
After averaging an underwhelming 128 yards of rushing offense in games 5-8, the offense rebounded behind Zack Moss and a renewed rushing attack in its final four games, scoring nine rushing touchdowns and averaging 190 rushing yards per game across that span. With the run/pass ratio shifting in favor of the run (61.8 percent of plays were runs in the last four games, up from 50.2 percent in the first eight games), the Utes enjoyed a working offensive formula that wasn’t previously achieved in their first eight games.
While some of their run-heavy approach is owed to game flow (particularly in runaway victories against UCLA and Colorado that saw the Utes run the ball to kill clock in the second half), it’s also clear that Troy Taylor’s offense benefitted from switching to a run-first approach from the previous pass-first one.
With that said, the passing game also enjoyed several nice moments down the final stretch from both Tyler Huntley and Troy Williams, as the former threw 832 yards and seven touchdowns to four interceptions in games against UCLA, Washington State and Washington, while the latter threw for a modest 181 yards and zero interceptions against Colorado.
The Utes also received contributions from a few unlikely names. Little-used scat back Troy McCormick showed his big-play ability in scoring two touchdowns against UCLA, Raelon Singleton previewed his potential as a No. 1 receiver by catching 11 balls for 168 yards and three touchdowns in games against Washington State and Washington and the aforementioned steady hand of Williams piloted the Utes to victory in a must-win game.
In all, the Utes’ final four games revealed three good-to-very-good offensive performances and a stray poor outing against Washington State. Against the Cougars’ 15th-ranked defense, Utah’s offense committed seven turnovers in addition to yielding eight sacks to a Hercules Mata’afa-led pass-rush. That performance alone will cost them a few points in what was an otherwise fruitful stretch.
The grade was a C- last time around; the unit gets its head above water this time.
Passing rank: 55th
Rushing rank: 34th
Unit MVP: Bradlee Anae
Key injuries: Tyrone Smith (CB), Marquise Blair (FS), Kylie Fitts (DE)
Reputed as a perennial stalwart, Utah’s defense lived up to its billing during the month of November. Sure, the unit lucked out some in avoiding Josh Rosen for the UCLA game, but they can’t be faulted for another team’s injuries.
In evaluating what they did face, the Utes were fantastic. They held the Bruins to just 249 yards of total offense, limited Washington State to several critical field goals despite being impositioned for nearly the entire game, made the Huskies work for everything they got and kept Colorado’s offense in check by pitching a first-half shutout while living up to their “Sack Lake City” moniker by generating five sacks.
What’s more is how well the defense performed despite being decimated by injuries, as all of Marquise Blair, Chase Hansen, Kylie Fitts, Sunia Tauteoli, Julian Blackmon and Casey Hughes missed time with various ailments during the end-of-season stretch. During that time, players like Donovan Thompson, Cody Barton and Corrion Ballard served credibly after being pressed into bigger roles. Utah’s depth showed up in a big way in these last four games.
Field goal kicking rank: 17th
PAT kicking rank: T-1st
Punting rank: 15th
Unit MVP: Mitch Wishnowsky
Key injuries: N/A
Special Teams U continued its season-long trend of solid performances in the final four games. Kicker Matt Gay was almost perfect during that span, hitting 8-of-9 field goals, including two 50+ yarders and another from 48 yards to solidify his station in this year’s award season.
Another award finalist, punter Mitch Wishnowsky, also played well despite being less than 100 percent. Aside from one poor punt against Colorado, the junior played like his reliable self down the stretch for Utah, both in his punt and kickoff duties.
Elsewhere, the kickoff and punt units completed a season without surrendering a single touchdown or a return longer than 50 yards. On the other side, the punt and kick return units did their jobs and even contributed a few big plays, including a Demari Simpkins 53-yard kick return against Washington State.
On the whole, it was another stretch of Utah winning the field position battle, just like it had all season.