Utah coach Kyle Whittingham probably was too forgiving in the midseason grading of his football team, because his A-minus assessment glosses over how the Utes lost to the wrong team.
In the second half of the season, the Utes either will have to raise their grade to an “A” by winning their remaining six games or hope that USC fails multiple times.
Here’s the problem with No. 13 Utah’s 5-1 record, amid strong performances overall by the offense and defense: If the season ended today, the Utes wouldn’t play in the Pac-12 championship game. USC would represent the South, via a 30-23 win over Utah last month in Los Angeles.
Even if the Utes win out, they’ll need USC to lose at least once. That’s likely to happen when Oregon visits the Trojans in early November. Otherwise, USC is favored by ESPN’s Football Power Index in every remaining game, and Utah will be an underdog at Washington.
NO. 17 ARIZONA STATE AT NO. 13 UTAH
Saturday, 4 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks.
So the Utes will have to keep improving, although they already have answered nearly every question they faced going into the season. Starting linebackers Francis Bernard and Devin Lloyd have been outstanding. The offensive line is not dominant, but has allowed only four sacks. The new kicker and punter have performed adequately.
Elsewhere, this team has lived up to expectations — or exceeded them, in the case of senior quarterback Tyler Huntley. Until the Utes overtake USC in the standings, though, that visit to the Coliseum will haunt them (a tie among three or more teams in the South also is possible). Here’s a closer look at Utah’s offense, defense and special teams, going into Saturday’s game vs. No. 17 Arizona State:
Any review of Utah's offense is highly favorable, aside from the snapshots of two drives inside the USC 2-yard line that produced a total of three points. The Utes can only wish running back Zack Moss had been available in those situations, after he exited early in the second quarter with a shoulder injury.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig otherwise has done exemplary work in his return to the program after 10 years away. These statements can coexist: Former coordinator Troy Taylor is doing a terrific job as Sacramento State's head coach, with recent wins over Eastern Washington and Montana State in the Big Sky Conference. And Ludwig has proven to be an upgrade over Taylor, with a 25th-ranked offense that finally is a genuine complement to Utah's defense.
After rushing for 187 yards in 29 carries in the season opener at BYU, Moss has run only 39 times, while missing the equivalent of 2½ games due to injury or rest. He still has posted 514 yards and needs only 55 yards to become Utah's career rushing leader.
Huntley's consistency is Utah's biggest story of 2019. He's No. 5 in the country in passer rating and No. 6 in ESPN's Total QBR formula, as Ludwig has maximized his ability with an offense tailored to him. “Tyler has embraced that and done a great job with everything he's been asked to do,” Whittingham said.
The receivers have been solid, although Utah's low volume of pass attempts and the group's depth have kept any of them from having a breakout season. Demari Simpkins' 14 receptions lead the team; seven other players (including tight end Brant Kuithe) have eight or more catches. As illogical as this would have sounded in August, the Utes haven't missed Britain Covey, who apparently will redshirt this season and rehabilitate his knee after catching 10 passes in the first four games.
Moss’ tackle-breaking ability and Huntley’s escapes have made the offensive line look better than it actually has performed. Yet the offense’s 467.3-yard average is enough of an endorsement of a group that may get a boost from junior college transfer Bamidele Olaseni, who’s now listed as the No. 2 right tackle.
Utah has scored 17 touchdowns on 28 trips inside the 20-yard line; Whittingham wants a higher percentage of success.
Much like the Ute offense near the goal line in Los Angeles, the Ute defensive players wish they could replay any of USC's three long touchdown passes. Defenders were in good position in each case, only to get beaten.
Whittingham wants more than Utah’s 10 takeaways (eight interceptions, two fumble recoveries) through six games, but the defense generally is what everyone figured it would be. The play of Leki Fotu, named to the AP Midseason All-America second team, and other linemen has been excellent, with tests to come in the next three weeks from the running games of ASU, California and Washington. The up-front domination has helped Bernard and Lloyd thrive, with their combined 85 tackles and three interceptions approaching the numbers of Chase Hansen and Cody Barton last season.
Other than allowing four USC completions for 179 yards, the secondary has been very good. The Utes held Washington State and Oregon State to a combined 20 points, after those teams had scored 63 and 48 points in their previous games — never mind that UCLA was the opponent in each case.
The Utes worried more about replacing kicker Matt Gay than punter Mitch Wishnowsky, and that has proven to be valid. It helps that “we're not punting it very much, which is a good thing,” Whittingham said.
The offense so frequently moves into scoring territory that freshman Ben Lennon has punted only 14 times (39.6-yard average), and often with a short field. Another freshman, walk-on Jadon Redding, took over the primary kicking job from graduate transfer Andrew Strauch during the first game (Strauch remains the kickoff specialist). Redding has made 6 of 8 field goals, having one kick blocked at USC and missing a short attempt vs. Washington State.
Other than Covey’s 40-yard punt return vs. BYU, the Utes haven’t made any game-changing plays on special teams. Simpkins now is the punt returner. Whittingham wants more impact in the return game, although few kickoffs are returned in college football anymore and a high percentage of punts also are fair-caught.
UTAH VS. USC
Oregon and Washington are both Top 25 teams, so Utah and USC have nearly identical schedules in the second half of the season. Because the Trojans own the tiebreaker, Utah needs to finish one game ahead of USC in the Pac-12 South to qualify for the conference championship game. Here are their remaining games:
Utah – Arizona State (Saturday), California (Oct. 26), at Washington (Nov. 2), UCLA (Nov. 16), at Arizona (Nov. 23), Colorado (Nov. 30).
USC – Arizona (Saturday), at Colorado (Oct. 25), Oregon (Nov. 2), at Arizona State (Nov. 9), at California (Nov. 16), UCLA (Nov. 23).