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Monson: Questions and answers emerge for the Utes

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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Travis Wilson (7) runs the ball in the fourth quarter as the University of Utah hosts Utah State, college football Thursday, August 29, 2013 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

By Gordon Monson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Aug 30 2013 10:59AM
Updated Sep 7, 2013 06:26PM

Complete answers about Utah football may not have rolled across the table on Thursday night, but bits of information shedding light on questions regarding the Utes did. Such as …

• Is Travis Wilson cool and capable enough to lead a newly dialed-down Ute offense?

It sure seemed like it, especially over certain stretches of the Utes’ 30-26 win against Utah State. Dennis Erickson deserves credit for his influence on that outcome, having simplified the offense for the sophomore quarterback and making him more comfortable. There were many passes drilled to targets, and a couple more that Wilson squeezed through the clown’s nose for completions he could have only dreamed about hitting a season ago.

Erickson also deftly utilized Wilson’s running ability near the end of the game, helping Utah preserve its victory.

These numbers don’t lie: Wilson hit 17 of 28 passes for 302 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. When Kyle Whittingham talked about his "throw game" before the season started, he all but begged for consistency through the air, something his offenses have lacked for four years.

Asked about the positives he saw Thursday night, Whittingham pointed straightaway to his quarterback: "We had great efficiency in the passing game, and our kicking game was the difference."

• About that kicking game: Who the h-e-double uprights is Andy Phillips?

Apparently, according to Whittingham, the kicker used to be a skier and a soccer player. After Game 1, he now is the Utes’ MVP. And, as everyone is well aware of by now, it wasn’t just his three clutch second-half field goals — from 45, 19 and 38 yards. His successful onside kick in the third might have been the play of the game, a play that changed the momentum and temporarily transformed Wilson into Johnny Unitas. The QB fired two strikes from distance leading to a subsequent touchdown that gave the Utes the lead, 24-23.

Said Phillips: "The onside kick was something we had executed in practice and we had confidence that we could run it. Karl [Williams] did a great job of recovering the kick."

Whittingham did a great job of calling for the kick.

And Phillips did a great job of kicking the kick.

• Can Utah’s offensive line block anybody?

It looked stronger against a tough Aggie defense than it did for much of last season. Whittingham was less-than-pleased with his run game, but the Utes did pick up 148 rushing yards. And Wilson was sacked a few times. Still, this group looks like it could, if it continues to improve, be a strength at some time in the future.

• Will the Utes miss Kenneth Scott?

That was a stiff jab to Utah’s mug, the loss for the season of their talented wide receiver. He will get a medical redshirt, but sometimes people forget about the human side of football, and the traumatic toll the game exacts. As for the effects on the field, players like Dres Anderson, Anthony Denham and Sean Fitzgerald will have to step up. They did against the Aggies, with Denham catching six passes for 113 yards, Fitzgerald getting five for 79, and Anderson snagging two for 59 and a score. Also, Whittingham said the Utah offense must use its tight ends more. Jake Murphy caught two balls for 41 yards and a touchdown.

• Will Whittingham blow a gasket if his team struggles again this season?

Absolutely. When the Utes fell behind 23-14 on Thursday night in front of their home crowd, it looked as though the coach’s head might explode. But he helped bring his team back from what would have been a disaster. That’s not meant as any kind of disrespect for Utah State. The Aggies are good. But looking ahead at the Utes’ coming schedule, if they had dropped their opener, they might have slid off the edge of the earth.

• Can the Utes survive their schedule?

Only if they get better — fast. Even in victory, Whittingham seemed more relieved than encouraged. He wasn’t impressed by his team’s overall play and made no secret of the fact: "We still have a lot of work to do," he said. "We are an average team right now."

After the automatic win against Weber State on Sept. 7, Utah, over the following eight games, plays: Oregon State, BYU, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona, USC, Arizona State, and Oregon.

• Who will best run the football for Utah?

Inconclusive. James Poole picked up 47 yards on 12 carries and Williams got 45 on 12. Kelvin York was less effective, gaining 30 yards on 10 attempts. Williams rushed for the only touchdown, but he also fumbled.

• Do the Utes have enough help in their defensive backfield?

Chuckie Keeton feasted on Utah’s secondary, completing 31 of 40 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns. But, then, Keeton is better than most quarterbacks the Utes will face. Whittingham called him a "Heisman-type player." Although Utah showed improvement later in the game, future opponents will look at that production through the air and take their shots at the back of the Ute defense.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

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