This is meant as no slight to Leki Fotu, no disrespect to Bradlee Anae or Jaylon Johnson or Zack Moss. And it’s no commentary on who will end up being the best NFL player. But this season at Utah, all of them are playing second fiddle to the Utes’ lead musician, their undisputed concertmaster, the tough man tuning the band.
He’s the one in the first chair, edged up under center, closest to the podium, huge heart pumping, bad knee and all, and that much was evident once more in a big, big way on Saturday as Utah beat Washington, 33-28.
How this whole thing would have gone without the senior quarterback’s resilience and precision and savvy is unknowable, but what is certain is that he did play and those three characteristics made it possible for the Utes to do something they’ve struggled to do in the past — beat the Huskies.
“We just had to do what we had to do,” Huntley said.
He passed for 284 yards, hitting on 19 of 24 throws and one touchdown. It wasn’t so much those numbers. It was the way Huntley used his pluck and strength to achieve what he’s done before — hang in under pressure and deliver killer throws and plays. The touchdown he ran for early in the fourth quarter, giving the Utes their lead, 26-21, getting crushed at the goal line, was indicative.
What he didn’t do was leave that pocket prematurely, nervously jumping out just as his targets ran into space, begging for the ball.
Huntley had already mastered that in the past — usually against teams not particularly suited to flush him out. But on this occasion, he accomplished it against Washington on its home field in a game of massive importance to the Utes. They simply had to win in order to keep their goal of a conference championship alive. From that perspective, the pressure was physical, mental and emotional.
Huntley carried that weight.
And for the first time in over a decade, Utah has a bona fide star quarterback. It’s been a long time coming, bumping and skidding through lesser talents at that position, and through Huntley’s earlier seasons, as he had some nice moments and some rough ones in his ascent toward this particular pinnacle. But that matriculation, at least at the college level, is now nearing its completion.
Dude can flat play. He knows how. He understands when to throw into a tight window, when to avoid doing so, where to put the ball when and when to put the ball where. He’s not Tom freaking Brady, but then, who is?
What Huntley doesn’t do that he once did, as mentioned, is rely too heavily on his athleticism, running around looking for his own while others have already done their jobs and are waiting for their reward — the ball.
Part of that might be on account of his compromised knee. But against the Huskies, the quarterback again and again took his drop, surveyed the routes of his receivers, wisely choosing who to target. Meanwhile, the Utes’ ground game churned away. Kyle Whittingham has always said, he said it this week, from a defensive perspective, the toughest attacks to limit are the balanced ones, the offenses that can jab at you, power the hook at you, and then knock you the hell out.
While Moss was running for 100 yards, Huntley swung the hammer, throwing short, throwing over the top on the Huskies’ D.
What all of this means is that Utah football didn’t go out and recruit a star QB, it did something even more impressive. It grew one. It nurtured one. It educated one.
What was on display on Saturday was the Education of Tyler Huntley.
He deserves the largest measure of that advancement’s credit, but the professors, foremost among them offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, should also bask in that spotlight. Ludwig has not only tutored Huntley, he built his offense around his quarterback’s strengths, turning him loose. The others have helped — Moss, especially, the offensive line, receivers such as Demari Simpkins, Jaylen Dixon, Bryan Thompson, among others.
But this is Huntley’s team.
There is that great defense, headed by Fotu, Anae, Johnson, et al. Moss is an absolute brute. But the guy around whom the music has centered this season, the guy of the game on Saturday, is the one sitting in that first chair.
Acknowledging, indeed, that there is work yet to do, when a tough, great team has a tough, great on-field leader, and when that leader happens to be the player who touches the ball on every snap, then that team can consider itself most complete, most fortunate.
The Utes do.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.