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Utah QB Jake Bentley’s play has been uneven to this point. How much better can he get?

South Carolina transfer is resourceful, and a crafty runner, but he needs to improve his accuracy

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Jake Bentley (8) runs the ball as the Utah Utes host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

In nearly 11 total quarters of football for the University of Utah this fall, Jake Bentley has completed 50 of 78 passes for 489 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions.

The first three of those 11 quarters were in relief of Cameron Rising, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the opener vs. USC. If you’re willing to excuse those, and look at only the last two games, both starts after the South Carolina graduate transfer took all the first-team reps, he has offered some good and some bad.

Bentley has completed 68% of his passes, while throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions in the last two games, under what appears to be a slimmed-down version of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s passing offense.

“He clearly has a good arm, and he’s shown himself to be more athletic in these last couple of games, he’s shown the ability to move out of the pocket when he has to,” Dustin Smith, a co-founder along with Ty Detmer of Salt Lake City-based QB Elite, told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week. “There have been some accuracy issues, but when you’re playing better defenses, you can’t afford to be missing throws very often.”

With the NCAA freezing the eligibility clock for fall athletes in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the quarterback situation at Utah in 2021 is setting up as a giant question mark. Bentley, now in his fifth year of college at the age of 23, does have the option to return in 2021, but that remains to be seen.

BENTLEY BY THE NUMBERS

Nov. 21, vs. USC: (2+ quarters in relief) 16-for-28, 171 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 105.9 QB Rating

Nov. 28, at Washington: 16-for-23, 144 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 119.1 QB Rating

Dec. 5, vs. Oregon State: 18-for-27, 174 yards, 1 TD, 133.0 QB Rating

Totals: 50-for-78, 489 yards, 3 TD, 4 INT, 119.2 QB Rating

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said in the wake of Rising’s shoulder injury that the redshirt sophomore may not be available by the time spring practice starts. Take Bentley’s decision and Rising potentially being unavailable, and mix those with Class of 2021 four-star recruit Peter Costelli entering the mix, and isn’t quite clear at this early stage where things might go.

What is clear is, if Whittingham and Ludwig have not yet decided what they have in Bentley, they have two more regular-season games, and potentially a bowl game to figure it out.

Bentley’s decision-making has been mostly solid and his ability to tuck the ball and run this season has been a nice, unexpected surprise. His leadership capabilities are also unquestioned, given he was voted a team captain without having played a game.

To Smith’s point, though, the completion percentage belies the fact that some accuracy issues came to the surface last week against Oregon State.

On Utah’s first three drives against the Beavers, the Utes had third-and-8 on the 15, third-and-goal on the 2 and third-and-5 on the 9. All three plays were either a bad throw or an overthrow to a tight end by Bentley, and all three wound up in Jadon Redding field goals for a 9-0 lead.

Whittingham made no bones postgame about the short-yardage situation.

“We didn’t score, we got field goals, that’s a whole different deal,” Whittingham said. “That was extremely frustrating, the first three trips to the red zone to end up with field goals. The game should have been blown wide open earlier, and it was our inability to function how we need to in the red zone, our ineptness in the red zone. That game should not have even been close early on.”

Bentley was not made available to reporters this week.

These final two, maybe three games with Bentley at the wheel of Ludwig’s offense begin Saturday vs. a Colorado defense that is giving up 215 passing yards per game, fifth-fewest in the Pac-12 and ranked 40th nationally.

Maybe Bentley further breaks out in Boulder, but in fairness, Utah is running the ball well behind budding freshman Ty Jordan, so Bentley may not be asked to do anymore than what he is doing now. That may make it hard to get a better gauge of how much more progress he can make, at least for this season.

“His experience was perfect for them, a senior with some experience that could offer some leadership,” Smith said. “Obviously, something happened in camp and they went in a different direction. Maybe some of those things have been exposed early on here, but I think getting a couple of games under his belt in this system, hopefully he can get more comfortable.”

UTAH at No. 21 COLORADO

At Folsom Field, Boulder, Colo.

Kickoff » Saturday, 10 a.m. MT

TV » FOX (Gus Johnson, play-by-play; Joel Klatt, analyst; Jenny Taft, sideline)

Radio » ESPN700 AM, Sirius Ch. 138, XM Ch. 197

Records » Utah 1-2; Colorado 4-0 (3-0 Pac-12)

Series » Colorado leads, 32-31-3

About Utah » The Utes are coming off a 30-24 home win over Oregon State in which freshman running back Ty Jordan rushed for 167 yards and his first career touchdown on 27 carries. Jordan was named Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Week on Monday … Utah has won three straight games vs, Colorado, including a 45-15 decision to close the 2019 regular season, which clinched the program’s second straight Pac-12 South title … The Utes have held all three of their opponents to under 360 yards of total offense, ranking second in the Pac-12 in total defense (350.7) … Teams are only converting 28% of their third-down attempts against the Utes, which ranks sixth in the FBS and first in the Pac-12.

About Colorado » The Buffaloes defeated Arizona, 24-13, in Tucson last weekend, and remain in contention for the Pac-12 South title. A win over Utah and a USC loss at UCLA would yield a division title and a trip to the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 18 … Only twice in the last 22 years has Colorado started 5-0, 1998 and 2018. The 2018 team wound up finishing 5-7, while the 1998 team finished 8-4 … Buffs head coach Karl Dorrell is the fifth head coach in program history to start his first season 4-0, but only the second since 1905.

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