SALT LAKE CITY — Much was made of Utah’s run-first mentality in the buildup to the season with senior running back Zack Moss being the program’s greatest asset on the offensive side of the ball.
And Thursday’s season-opening 30-12 win over BYU did nothing to squash the run-first identity new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has installed for Utah. Moss stole the show with 187 rushing yards and one touchdown on 29 carries to lead Utah to its ninth-straight victory over the Cougars.
But what about the passing game?
Utah’s Tyler Huntley only managed 16 passes on the night and went 13-of-16 for 106 yards. It was a relatively clean night for the senior quarterback, but there was little about the passing attack that showed the potential for the season.
If anything, after the game, there were questions about whether Utah would have any passing attack worthy of its stellar run game. Even when Huntley completed a pass, it was a safe play either behind the line of scrimmage or a quick pass in the flats.
That’s not to say there weren’t deeper looks, such as a wide-open passing attempt to tight end Brant Kuithe about 15 yards downfield, but the game plan was conservative and lacked chunk yards.
It would be easy to take a reactionary approach and blame Ludwig for not being aggressive with the passing game, but Utah’s approach to the game was executed well and accomplished what the team needed to beat BYU.
Utah didn’t need to open up the playbook to establish the pass because the run game was working so well with Moss, particularly in the second half when he started feeling more comfortable back in his role after his season-ending injury last year. Ludwig schemed appropriately and kept what was working well.
Instead of trying to force the offense into a particular strategy, Ludwig saw what BYU was giving and kept with the hot hand at running back until the Cougars could stop it — which they couldn’t.
BYU’s defense negated a lot of deep-threat looks because they dropped eight players into coverage, leaving Huntley with few open looks downfield. For Huntley to be successful against that type of look, he’d be forced to make aggressive passes into tight windows where the possibility of turnover is a lot higher.
And head coach Kyle Whittingham isn’t comfortable with that aggressive style of play, particularly when it’s not merited. Had Utah trailed late in the game, Huntley would have been given the green light to push it a little more with an attempt at the passes. The opportunities for big plays were occasionally there Thursday night, but Utah decided to play the game more conservatively.
Instead, the run was king — to the amount of 256 total rushing yards for the Utah offense.
“We know we need to be more explosive, we did not have enough explosive plays,” Whittingham cautioned. “We need to get the ball down the field more in the throw game. But I thought it was a good start. But we've got to get better, make no mistake about it; we've got to do get better.”
Utah will still need to improve in the passing game, but there is little from the BYU game that should cause immediate concern. The passing game will grow and mature over the season, but the vanilla play-calling isn’t a sign of Whittingham hiring an offensive coordinator who doesn’t have a strong passing attack.
No, it’s more that Ludwig is scheming to what works in the game. And until someone can stop Moss and the depth behind him at running back, there’s little need to open up the playbook beyond a few shots downfield. As teams key in on the run more, which they will in the Pac-12, Utah will be able to utilize its receivers more for a balanced approach on the offense.
Until then, keep giving the rock to Moss and worry less about the passing game … for now.