SALT LAKE CITY — With one-third of the Utah Utes’ football season in the rearview mirror, we can begin to draw at least a few conclusions from this season’s performances and determine which trends are meaningful and which aren’t. So with the Utes on a bye week, we’ll introduce the first installment of our new three-part series, Playing in Thirds, where we’ll grade each of Utah football’s three phases — offense, defense and special teams.
To divide Utah’s schedule into thirds, parts two and three of the series will be released following the completion of the Utes’ eighth and 12th games. At those times, we’ll revisit the previous grades to track their progression or regression from the most recent four-game split.
So without further ado, here is part one of Playing in Thirds.
View from the clubhouse
Overall record: 4-0
Conference record: 1-0 (2nd in South)
AP rank: 20
Passing rank: 38th
Rushing rank: 68th
Unit MVP: Tyler Huntley (QB)
Key injuries: Tyler Huntley (QB), Armand Shyne (RB)
The portrait of Utah’s offense was a lot rosier before Huntley’s injury, but judging the unit’s performance from last week at 30,000 feet, they still deserve a passing grade. It wasn’t always pretty, but Troy Williams filled in adequately for Huntley on Friday. He helped direct three scoring drives, avoided costly turnovers and even added a rushing touchdown in his impromptu return. Most importantly, his team won. But while the offense was functional with Williams at the helm, the dynamism that was present with Huntley as the signal-caller vanished. The offense still enjoyed some nice moments on the arm of Williams — his 37-yard completion to Demari Simpkins on third-and-long that fit between a pair of converging Wildcats stands out — but on the whole, the offense appeared incapable of shifting into fourth gear with him under center.
The purpose of this exercise to judge Utah on the wider sample, though, and on that, the Utes grade quite favorably. Under new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, the Utes’ passing game has been as prolific as anything we’ve seen up on the hill in recent years. Early on, Huntley established a keen rapport with newly installed wide receiver Darren Carrington II, who, statistically, is the most dominant receiver in program history through the first four games.
Huntley also powered the Utes’ rushing attack, though much to the displeasure of Kyle Whittingham, who for weeks has been openly challenging his running backs for increased production. The Utes’ backfield showed progress last week at Arizona as Zack Moss and Devonta’e Henry-Cole rushed for a combined 116 yards on 25 carries, but for his part, Whittingham is still dissatisfied with the run game, calling it a “work in progress” at his Monday press conference.
In terms of its red zone offense — the offseason’s hot-button topic — Utah has shown marked improvement over last year. While a four-game sample is too small to deem its issues “solved,” the early returns — an 88.46 percent conversion rate and 12 touchdowns to 11 field goals — have been promising. For now, Utah’s offense is checking all of the boxes for its stated goals: convert in the red zone, limit turnovers and improve in the “throw game.” Credit where credit is due.
Passing rank: 49th
Rushing rank: 7th
Unit MVP: The secondary
Key injuries: Kylie Fitts (DE)
After beginning the season with a trio of strong defensive efforts, Utah’s defense produced an uneven performance in opening conference play last Friday. Entering the game as the sixth-ranked rush defense, Utah surrendered 200 rushing yards and two touchdowns to Arizona while giving up runs of 14, 15, 16 and 22 yards. Making matters worse was that the Utes' defense committed four penalties for a total of 60 yards, including a targeting penalty on Marquise Blair that will keep him out for the first half of the forthcoming Stanford game. (The targeting call was the Utes’ second of the season as Sunia Tauteoli was assessed with the penalty in Week 2 against BYU.) But in terms of positives, the unit produced five turnovers against the Wildcats, including a Javelin Guidry pick-six during the third quarter.
That explosion of takeaways continued a season-long trend for the Utes, who are tied for first in the country in forcing turnovers (14). At present, more than half of those have come on the back of Utah’s secondary, whose inexperience was often discussed during the summer but has proven to be a non-factor in the early stages of the season.
But while the secondary has generated the majority of the defense’s impact plays, it is the Utes’ front seven and pass rush that anchors the overall unit on a per-play basis. Through four games, the Utes have produced 11 sacks, tied for 23rd in country, with Kylie Fitts and Bradlee Anae recording a pair each. Clogging the interior line has been the duo of Lowell Lotuleilei and Filipo Mokofisi, whose combined size and power has earned special attention from opposing offensive lines and opened rushing lanes for those playing behind them.
The strength of Utah’s defense lies in its stability at every position group. There is plenty of individual talent on this side of the ball, to be sure, but it’s the collective discipline and playmaking that gives the defense an advantage each week. Aside from a few a damaging penalties, this group has been impressive in the first third of the season.
Field goal kicking rank: T-1st
PAT kicking rank: T-1st
Punting rank: 7th
Unit MVP: Matt Gay
Key injuries: N/A
The kicker and punter positions for Utah football have graduated into pedigreed stations in recent years, and so far this season, Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky are upholding those standards. A former Utah Valley University soccer player, Gay has enjoyed a perfect season for the Utes, making all 14 of his field goal and PAT attempts and converting on a pair of 40 and 50 plus-yard attempts. Meanwhile, Wishnowsky is averaging 46.7 yards per punt, good enough for seventh in the country, and has recorded 25 touchbacks on 31 kickoff attempts.
One of the more interesting special teams stats for the Utes comes from their kickoff return team, which has recorded a lowly three returns all season, the second-fewest nationally. In some ways, this is a credit to Utah’s defense for not allowing points, but more than anything, it speaks to how effective distance kickers have become at limiting return opportunities across college football.
In terms of the punt return unit, senior Boobie Hobbs has been a revelation, averaging 19.4 yards per return on nine attempts. Hobbs has been held out of the end zone so far, but after nearly taking one to the house last week, appears to be knocking on the door of a breakthrough.
In all, the grade for this group would have been much higher had it not been for a couple of costly mistakes last week. While Arizona failed to score off the Utes’ special teams blunders — a botched long snap and onside kick recovery — either could have altered the outcome in what finished as a one-possession game. For now, the verdict is very good but not great.