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Kragthorpe: Utes’ Travis Wilson shows courage in return to field (video)

Once-injured QB shows spunk, aggresiveness in season opener

First Published Aug 28 2014 10:06 pm • Last Updated Aug 29 2014 12:26 pm

Utah quarterback Travis Wilson sprinted to his left, dived through the air and extended the football beyond the goal line.

In that moment Thursday night, late in the first quarter of Utah’s 56-14 victory over Idaho State at Rice-Eccles Stadium, any remaining issues regarding Wilson’s will to play football were answered.

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Those questions about how Wilson might approach his return to the field seem silly now, don’t they? He’s the same, competitive QB as ever — maybe even more so, after his career was in jeopardy last winter because of an intracranial artery condition.

Why would anyone have doubted him? Well, it was only natural to wonder if he would be more conscious of trying to protect himself.

No chance.

"He’s a tough kid," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, who had no misgivings about Wilson’s flight to the end zone. "It’s good to see him be aggressive. … He has no hesitation whatsoever."

Wilson described his leap as "kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing," after the pocket collapsed and he discovered an opportunity to race the Bengal defenders to the corner.

The junior quarterback described himself as "blessed" to be playing again, after missing the final three games of the 2013 season. He’s clearly determined to maximize every chance he gets to play, even if Thursday’s episode provided him only a half of football against a low-level opponent.

Don’t worry; it gets tougher from here.

"Obviously, we didn’t showcase the whole offense," Wilson said, "but I think we executed well we we had in the game plan."

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The dilemma with this kind of game is how much credit to give any of the Utes. Plays they made look so routine against the Bengals won’t come as easily the rest of the season, beginning next week against Fresno State.

It’s also worth wondering about a defense that allowed 179 total yards to ISU in the first half and 337 for the game, with Whittingham expressing displeasure about the Utes’ inability to dominate up front. The Bengals’ 179 rushing yards especially disappointed Whittingham, who also was surprised about the Utah offensive line’s problems.

Yet there’s no doubt that the likes of receiver Dres Anderson, running back Devontae Booker and kick returner Kaelin Clay have Pac-12 talent, and an offense that’s designed to get the ball quickly into the playmakers’ hands shows signs of working.

"You look around, and we’ve got so much talent — especially on the offensive side," said Ute defensive end Nate Orchard. "It’s going to be exciting to see what they can do."

Wilson earned a preliminary grade of "pretty good" from Whittingham. He avoided sacks, interceptions and any temptation to force throws against an inferior opponent, delivering the ball crisply and effectively. Wilson completed 13 of 18 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown as the Utes built a 35-7 lead at halftime, then watched Kendal Thompson and Brandon Cox take their turns in the second half.

Of course, Booker made Wilson look good by sprinting 61 yards down the sideline with a screen pass, Anderson and Kenneth Scott made touch catches in traffic and tight end Westlee Tonga made a couple of nice grabs. Wilson summarized the Utes’ approach as "taking the easy plays and getting big yards from them."

Wilson’s last appearance in a game was Nov. 9 in a 20-19 loss to Arizona State, with his final pass intercepted by a defensive lineman.

There were initial fears that the interception might stand as the last attempt of his career, but he was allowed to participate without contact in spring practice and fully cleared to play as of late June.

And he looked sharp Thursday, directing his first victory since an upset of Stanford in October.

Utah posted 379 total yards in the half and 589 for the game, even while Clay’s touchdowns via a punt return and a kickoff return cost the offense two possessions. Then again, thanks to Clay, the offense gets credit for only 42 of those 56 points.

That was more than sufficient production, as of Thursday. The degree of difficulty will rise significantly in the weeks to come, but Wilson’s level of competitiveness won’t change a bit.

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