All eyes focused on quarterback Tyler Huntley as the Utes opened their season on Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Doing so, against Weber State, was one of the few expected payoffs, indicators of what was new and improved, against an overwhelmed FCS opponent, one that had no authentic shot at victory.
It didn’t work out that way, at least not for a half. The payoff came later. When it arrived, Utah looked like a quality team, Huntley like a quality quarterback, winning 41-10.
“Awful” was the word Kyle Whittingham used to describe his team’s early performance. Later, he said, “we started playing our game.”
Huntley went ahead and threw for 253 yards and four touchdowns, most of them coming in the third and fourth quarters. Until Zack Moss burst free on an 86-yard touchdown run with five minutes remaining in the second quarter, Huntley and the entire offense, gagged, burped and lurched, falling behind by 10 points before climbing out of that deficit for a 17-10 lead at the half.
Other than Moss’ single effort, and big plays by Britain Covey, there wasn’t much to inspire confidence.
“We just knew we had to make some plays,” Huntley said. “Everybody got on the same page and we started rolling.”
Still, that start was disconcerting for an attack that expected more from itself. Huntley was picked once, had another interception nullified by a penalty, and did not look sharp. The running attack, at times, was … average. The offensive line provided spotty protection, in a way that made the Utes look as though they were playing USC, not Weber.
It was Huntley’s decision-making that was of greatest interest, that particular aspect being an area that needed refinement. If last season proved anything, it was that the first-time starter had a raw ability to move the ball without giving it to anybody else. He often held it, advanced it without pitching or passing to a running back, even one as gifted as Moss, or to receivers that were open. A sure indication it was that Huntley heretofore had been a superior athlete at lesser levels and could depend on himself to get his team’s business done.
That, however, was not and is not the case at the Pac-12 level. It might not be the case at the Big Sky level. He’d heard that message for months.
For him and his team to reach their potential, he had to evolve. He had to get more sophisticated. He had to make like Eugene Ormandy, put on the tux and tails, and lead the orchestra, help blend the symphonic sound, not blow the horns and bang the drums himself — and not run the risk of having a tuba busted over his head or an oboe slammed across his knees by some angry defender.
Against the Wildcats, Huntley shared the ball, tried to let his playmakers make those plays. Rarely did he dance around, instead handing off and dealing to his receivers.
Moss had earlier said, in less than demonstrative terms, that he wanted the ball more than he got it last year, especially in significant situations. Who could blame him? He was the best weapon on the team. Still is. He rushed for 150 yards and a TD on this night, and caught three passes for 24 and a score.
Various receivers, if they were going to go to the trouble of carving routes, being where they should be, wanted the ball rather than having to turn around and block for a jumpy quarterback. Twelve different guys caught balls against Weber State. And offensive linemen who walled off a sound pocket did not want it busted or moved or ruined by a nervous passer.
Thursday night, it was a split deal: a collective kind of struggle, a collective kind of success. At the end, Utah had 587 yards of offense, the Wildcats 61. Turnovers were a problem.
Initially, nobody distinguished himself and then everybody did.
In the run-up to the game, Huntley said: “I’ve been watching a lot of film. I’m smarter in the game. You’ve got to be comfortable with everybody around you, trust everything around you. If you do your job, everyone else will play their part.”
If you let them.
Huntley gave them that space here. And eventually they rewarded him.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Covey said. “I feel a lot of confidence in this offense, and in Tyler, especially.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.