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Utah football notes: Thomas, Aiono out but expected back against Fresno State
We tried to hit all the angles (see below) after last night's seventh-straight season-opening win for the Utes, but here are a few notes that slipped through the cracks.
Old faces, big results • After the game, Travis Wilson said he has an embarrassment of riches with the skill players surrounding him now, but his three top targets weren't the new kids on the block. Seniors Dres Anderson (111 yards) and Westlee Tonga (61) yards and junior Kenneth Scott (57 yards) all had standout performances, while newcomers Kaelin Clay (13 yards) and Tim Patrick (9 yards) were relatively quiet — or, in Clay's case, at least quiet in the passing game. There are only so many passes to go around, though, and Thursday night they went to Utah's most tried and tested hands.
Out of action • Sophomore Justin Thomas, listed most recently as co-starter at cornerback, and starting junior center Siaosi Aiono missed the game for undisclosed reasons. Whittingham said Thomas is expected back for Fresno State and told ESPN 700's Bill Riley the same thing about Aiono, who was dressed before the game. In Aiono and Thomas' absence, Hiva Lutui and Wykie Freeman made their first-ever starts.
No word on Moeai • Utah's policy is not to discuss injuries unless they are season-ending, and then only at Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham's Monday press conference. But fans who watched tight end Evan Moeai take a shot to the knee Thursday night were understandably concerned, especially after watching him crawl off the field and then keep weight off of that leg when he was helped to his feet. We'll let you know more when we do.
Capacity crowd • The attendance of 45,925 surpassed Utah's 2010 opener against Pittsburgh as the fifth-largest crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The capacity of the stadium, which sold out for the 26th straight time Thursday, was expanded by 790 seats installed in standing-room sections.
Ground groans • Whittingham said after the game that his team didn't win the game in the trenches to the degree that he'd hoped on either side of the ball. But particularly disconcerting was the defense's effort against the Idaho State rush attack, whose 179 yards was the second-most they've had in a game since 2008. Whittingham said it's not just the defensive line, but the linebackers, and that much of the problems were missed gap assignments.
Crushing kickoffs • Last season, Utah fans sometimes harped on the lack of touchbacks in the kickoff game — and perhaps rightly so, as Utah finished 94th in the country with an opponent return average of 22.91. In the offseason, kicker Andy Phillips said the goal this year might be to drive the ball deeper into the end zone, and that's what happened against the Bengals. His first kick sailed through the back of the end zone, and he had eight kickoffs for eight touchbacks on the night.
Hats off • Sophomore Dominique Hatfield, Utah's first two-way player since San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle, had just one catch for nine yards on the offensive side of the ball, but he met expectations in his first game at cornerback. Hatfield recorded half the team's four pass break-ups and also made a tackle. With the loss of Reginald Porter — "probably the best cover guy," according to Eric Rowe — Utah could really use some dependable depth at the position.
Shepard starts • With 2.5 sacks, Nate Orchard was the headliner, but junior Clint Shepard earned a start at defensive tackle and played well, totaling five tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss. Shepard was put on scholarship for the first time this fall after spending two years in the program as a walk-on, and beat out some highly touted players to spend his first game on scholarship as a starter.
Lowell and behold • Starting his first game as a true freshman, defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei had 1.5 tackles for a loss and forced a fumble. Other true freshmen who played were: cornerbacks Boobie Hobbs, Monte Seabrook and running back-turned-cornerback Tavaris Williams; safety Marcus Williams; wideout Kenric Young; defensive end Wallace Gonzalez; and offensive guard Logan Stott.
The Tribune's coverage from last night (with photos and video attached)
• Special teams stole the show Thursday night, as Kaelin Clay returned a punt and kick for a touchdown, Eric Rowe blocked a kick and Tom Hackett showed why he's considered one of the nation's best punters.
• Most fans sang "Utah Man," not "Utah Fan," in their first opportunity since an alternate version was created after complaints of sexism.