When the Pac-12 added a Defensive Lineman of the Week award this season, Utah’s football program figured to be recognized regularly, considering the Utes’ tradition at this position.
The honors have come after each of Utah’s last three games, to three different players. Defensive tackle John Penisini received the award Monday, for his performance in Saturday’s 33-28 victory over Washington in Seattle. Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for the second time this season. Running back Zack Moss was selected as the Pac-12′s top performer by the Rose Bowl Game organizers.
Oregon’s defeat of USC was all the help Utah needed in the Pac-12 South race. The Utes, idle this week, can win another division championship by beating UCLA, Arizona and Colorado (UCLA has the same opportunity, with three games remaining). “That’s the position you want to put yourself in,” Moss said. “We’ve done a great job of doing that ... [but] the mission’s not completed.”
The Utes (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) are a season-high No. 8 in the AP Top 25. We’ll see where they land in the first College Football Playoff rankings, to be announced Tuesday at 7 p.m. MST on ESPN.
“It’s time to take a breath and enjoy what you’ve accomplished,” coach Kyle Whittingham said, “but understanding there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Whittingham gave his game ball to the entire team Saturday, as a reward for beating the Huskies after losing to the Huskies four times in three seasons. Some outstanding individual performances certainly helped the Utes.
Penisini, a senior from West Jordan High School, tied his career high with seven tackles. He was credited with a 12-yard sack when Washington quarterback Jacob Eason was called for intentional grounding in the third quarter, with the Huskies leading 21-13. That second-and-22 situation resulted in Ute cornerback Jaylon Johnson’s 39-yard interception return for a touchdown.
In the first quarter, Penisini forced Eason's fumble as the quarterback was scrambling. Mika Tafua's recovery at the Washington 15-yard line led to a Utah field goal.
Ute defensive linemen Bradlee Anae (vs. Arizona State) and Leki Fotu (vs. California) were honored after the previous two games. Their presence up front has helped the Utes rank No. 1 in the country in rushing defense, No. 3 in total defense and No. 7 in scoring defense.
The linemen’s bond makes them accountable to the group about their efforts on the field, Penisini said: “We’re so close that we’re comfortable confronting each other.”
Huntley received the Offensive Player of the Week after the Utes beat Washington State in late September. Against Washington, he completed 19 of 24 passes for 284 yards and one touchdown, while running for the go-ahead touchdown.
Huntley went 11 of 12 for 184 yards in the second half, leading fourth-quarter scoring drives of 82 and 84 yards. He converted three third-and-long plays on those drives, with passes of 41 yards to Jaylen Dixon, 14 yards to Solomon Enis and 28 yards to Samson Nacua.
Afterward, Whittingham labeled him “one of the elite quarterbacks in the country,” and the numbers support that statement. Huntley is No. 3 nationally in yards per attempt (10.3), No. 5 in completion percentage (73.8) and No. 5 in passing efficiency (182.5). He’s also fifth in ESPN’s Total QBR formula, behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and LSU’s Joe Burrow.
Beyond the statistics, Whittingham has described him as “the unquestioned leader” of Utah's team.
“People want to follow him,” said former teammate Cody Barton, now a Seattle Seahawks rookie. “That's a great quality to have in a quarterback.”
Moss ran for 100 yards and touchdown on 27 carries and caught a team-high five passes for 41 yards, including a 9-yard score.
UCLA AT NO. 8 UTAH
Nov. 16, 6 p.m.