Utah’s offensive coaches defined Britain Covey’s role in August. The sophomore receiver would catch a half-dozen footballs every game via intermediate routes and, occasionally, throw a touchdown pass on a trick play.
The offense’s overall job description took longer to develop. Covey himself wondered about the group’s direction after a mid-September loss to Washington. Now, after a couple of wins, the Utes seem to know who they are.
Running success leads to passing opportunities for Utah, in that order. The offense is not powerful enough to merely line up and pound the ball at opposing defenses for 60 minutes. Yet when Zack Moss and other runners (including quarterback Tyler Huntley) are effective, the entire scheme works. Lately, the offense has a distinct personality — and is actually fun to watch.
After last Friday's 42-10 win over Arizona, Covey said, “We really have found an identity as a team and it's obvious to see. You know what you're going to have to stop when you play us, but it's easier to say than to do.”
And that’s a breakthrough for Utah at the halfway mark of the season. In one sense, the Utes are just getting started. Already, though, they’ve arrived at the crux of their schedule. Saturday night’s homecoming game vs. USC basically will determine whether they become the Pac-12 South favorites or fall out of the race.
Utah may not win the South title just by sweeping its five divisional rivals. A loss to No. 12 Oregon in November could complicate things. But that's getting ahead of the story.
The immediate question is whether the Utes (4-2, 2-2 Pac-12) have become good enough to beat USC. The latest signs are encouraging, but that’s partly based on where Utah stood as of two weeks ago. Here’s a midseason review of the offense, defense and special teams.
Aided by a defensive touchdown, the Utes scored 40 and 42 points in the past two games, while posting 421 and 495 total yards. That’s a major upgrade from their first three games against FBS opponents and it came with an increased focus on running the ball. Yet it is not as simple as giving Moss the ball 30 times a game. Huntley and his receivers also have to be efficient.
The Utes rank only 72nd in the country in total offense (406.7 yards), but they’re making progress over last season in a couple of critical areas: getting third-down conversions and scoring touchdowns on drives inside the 20-yard line. Utah thrives when Moss is running consistently and offensive coordinator Troy Taylor has more play-calling options.
The o-line’s pass protection has improved and the receivers are making catches, as happened in preseason camp — but not so much in September.
Based on holding Washington to 21 points and Washington State to 28, the Utes' No. 10-ranked defense has played well enough for them to be 6-0. It's also true that after playing phenomenally in a stretch of two-plus quarters at WSU, the defense allowed the winning 89-yard touchdown pass.
Issues remain in the secondary, even if a No. 67 ranking in yards allowed (225.2) is forgivable because WSU was among the opponents. The Utes have succeeded in making offenses one-dimensional. The problem is that dimension is working too well. Utah will have to play better against USC quarterback JT Daniels.
This has been a weird season for kicker Matt Gay, the reigning Lou Groza Award winner. He has attempted only 11 field goals, compared with 34 last year, and four of those came in one game. The good news is he made all four kicks at Stanford.
Mitch Wishnowsky, the 2016 Ray Guy Award winner, has been consistently good. He’s averaging 44.6 yards, and 12 of his 25 punts have gone inside the 20. His best attribute is never punting the ball into the end zone; running twice for first downs is a bonus. Wishnowsky was named the Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the week after averaging 48.2 yards vs. Arizona and placing punts at the 7- and 2-yard lines. He also ran for 28 yards on a fake punt.
The return game has not been much of a factor for Utah or its opponents, although the Utes forever will wish a penalty hadn’t nullified Covey’s punt-return TD at Washington State.
UTAH’S FBS RANKINGS
Total offense – 72nd (406.7 yards).
Rushing – 55th (185.8).
Passing – 80th (220.8).
Total defense – 10th (300.0).
Rushing defense – 2nd (74.8).
Passing defense – 67th (225.2).
Utah vs. USC
Saturday, 6 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks