Utah's Zack Moss is known for churning out consistent, 5-yard runs. The next phase of his development is becoming more of a breakaway threat, as he promised would happen.
“Just get me through August,” Moss said on the first day of preseason camp, “and we'll see.”
By the end of August, with the coaching staff having kept him from absorbing too many hits in practice, Moss showed that ability on his 13th carry of the season. His 86-yard touchdown run in Thursday’s second quarter launched the slow-starting Utes toward a 41-10 defeat of Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Moss carried the ball only three more times (he also caught a touchdown pass) as the Utes surged ahead. He finished with 150 rushing yards for the second game in a row, starting with the Heart of Dallas Bowl vs. West Virginia in December. How he’s arriving at that total is the interesting part.
There's a Bryce Love element in Moss' game lately. Love, Stanford's Heisman Trophy runner-up, has a knack for breaking big runs after being held down for long stretches of games. The Utes remember how he struck them with a 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter last October.
Moss' career-high, 196-yard game vs. Colorado in the 2017 regular-season finale included a long run of only 20 yards. His 150-yard total against West Virginia featured a 58-yard TD, and his numbers against Weber State were even more stark.
Moss' carry-by-carry yardage: 1, 1, 10, 16, 14, minus-2, minus-3, 7, 4, 3, 2, 0, 86, 2, 2, 7.
Four of Moss' 16 carries accounted for 126 yards. Eight of his runs went for 2 yards or fewer.
That's a weird way to get to 150, but that's also the nature of the running game. Weber State coach Jay Hill, who personally calls the Wildcat defensive schemes, is a former Utah assistant. He believes in the Kyle Whittingham philosophy of committing to stop the run with an extra defender, explaining how Moss' showing vs. Weber State resembled the pattern of Love's 152-yard night vs. Utah.
San Diego State, meanwhile, took that approach to an extreme Friday. The Aztecs held Love to 29 yards on 18 carries, but Stanford's K.J. Costello passed for 332 yards in the No. 13 Cardinal's 31-10 win.
In Utah's opener, the Wildcats stuffed Moss on a fourth-and-1 play. His next carry turned into the 86-yard run, as he went untouched through the left side. Those plays illustrated an offensive-line performance that Whittingham summarized as “some hot, some cold.”
“That's how the run game goes,” Moss said. “You're not going to hit every run. The O-line started to get into a rhythm and I was just being patient and trusting those guys every play. Also, trusting the play-calling, knowing we'd make a play sooner than later.”
Moss' sequence of 10-, 16- and 14-yard runs came in a four-play span in Utah’s first touchdown drive. He was able to let the blocking develop on those plays in a display of patience and his open-field ability. In his 16 runs, Moss forced six missed tackles and gained 48 yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus.
At other times, the Wildcats outnumbered the blockers and contained Moss. That’s why Utah’s passing game is vital; between Tyler Huntley and backup Jason Shelley, the Utes threw for 197 yards in the second half.
Thursday’s other notable developments in the running game were the use of receiver Britain Covey as a runner and how infrequently Huntley kept the ball. Instead, Huntley usually gave it to Moss, both on designed handoffs and zone-read plays. Counting sacks and scrambles, Huntley averaged 16 carries last year, but he ran only seven times (for 1 net yard) against Weber State.
Covey ran for 26 yards on a designed sweep and 38 yards on what started as an option pass and turned into a scramble. In the second half, redshirt freshman TJ Green, freshman Devin Brumfield and junior Armand Shyne got a total of eight carries, with Shyne making his first appearance in a game since October 2016. Shyne fumbled after catching a pass; Brumfield was charged with a fumble in an exchange with Shelley.