Utah's defensive performance last weekend at Colorado evoked images of one of the Utes' September games, and not in a good way.
The way Utah tormented Colorado with six sacks (seven, by the Utes' in-house statistics) and 16 tackles for loss resembled Northern Illinois' treatment of Utah’s offense. The Huskies lost 17-6, but held the Utes to 10 offensive points, while recording six sacks and 14 tackles for loss.
Utah’s offensive line has improved considerably since then. That’s especially true in the past two games, for two apparent reasons: Senior co-captain Lo Falemaka has returned to the lineup and quarterback Jason Shelley is conscious of getting rid of the ball, avoiding sacks.
Shelley has been sacked only once in each game since replacing the injured Tyler Huntley, whose determination to hold the ball and extend plays is both a strength and a weakness.
Opponents had posted 24 sacks in Utah's first nine games, one of the highest sack totals allowed by Pac-12 teams, factoring in the number of passing attempts. Utah's line also allowed the hit of Huntley that sidelined him for the season with a broken collarbone, although that incompletion was innocently recorded as a “quarterback hurry” by Arizona State.
The linemen have played better lately. Asked about Utah's downfield passing success against Colorado, coach Kyle Whittingham pointed to pass protection as a key element.
Falemaka began the season as Utah’s center, with Orlando Umana and Nick Ford alternating at left guard. Falemaka was injured in late September at Washington State, so Umana became the center and Ford started at guard. After missing all Utah’s 4-0 month of October, Falemaka played part time at guard against Arizona State and started in the wins over Oregon and Colorado that enabled the Utes to claim the Pac-12 South championship.
Granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA after his career was interrupted by various injuries, including a gunshot wound, Falemaka was hoping for a healthy senior year. “I didn’t want to miss any games at all,” he said, “but it’s nice to be back out there.”
Center is Falemaka's preferred position, but Ute assistant coach Jim Harding trains his linemen to play multiple spots. Umana has performed well enough at center to keep him there, and Falemaka has thrived at guard. “It's definitely nice,” Falemaka said. “I'd play any position where they need it most.”
Offensively, Utah's only senior starters are linemen. The Utes will lose Falemaka, left tackle Jackson Barton and right guard Jordan Agasiva.
With Ford having started five games, though, the line in essence will return three starters: Ford, Umana and right tackle Darrin Paulo. Utah has a commitment from LaColby Tucker, a 6-foot-9, 305-pound tackle from Garden City (Kan.) Community College.
Surgery for Moss
Ute running back Zack Moss has undergone surgery for a knee injury, Whittingham said Tuesday, after being declared out for the season in early November. The procedure went “probably a little bit better than what they anticipated," Whittingham said. "It’s still a lengthy rehab … but when the rehab is over, he should be as good as new.”
Having rushed for 1,092 yards in nine games as a junior, Moss will consider entering the NFL draft. He’ll do the research, we’ll help him with that research, and then make an educated decision,” Whittingham said.
With the Utes' schedule down to four games (counting the Pac-12 championship game) as of last Saturday, the coaching staff used two freshmen at Colorado for the first time: defensive linemen Jackson Cravens and receiver Terrell Perriman. The NCAA’s new rule allows players to participate in as many as four games and retain a year’s eligibility. The Utes have used 10 true freshmen this season; five of them remain redshirt candidates.