Utes football was impressive, but there was plenty to be displeased about in win over Weber State

Kyle Whittingham’s University of Utah football team now has a baseline to work with as it overwhelms the FCS Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Utes take the field in the PAC-12 football game between the University of Utah and Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Kyle Whittingham had insisted that he wouldn’t know exactly what he had in his 24th-ranked University of Utah football team until it played a game.

After a 90-minute lightning delay on Thursday evening, the Utes’ head coach got a baseline to work with following his team’s 40-17 win over preseason FCS No. 6 Weber State in front of a Rice-Eccles Stadium record crowd of 51,511.

To be sure, there was plenty of good to glean from Utah’s opening effort, but also enough bad that Whittingham was at least mildly displeased during his postgame press conference following the win.

Charlie Brewer’s debut went well

How’s this for an introduction, not only to quarterback Charlie Brewer, but to what this Andy Ludwig-coached offense could be with Brewer at the wheel?

On Utah’s first offensive snap, a first down from the Weber State 36-yard line, the Utes went with five wide receivers and Brewer in the shotgun. Brewer had plenty of time to loft a pass down the left hash to All-Pac-12 tight end Brant Kuithe, who was interfered with for a 15-yard penalty. It says something that Utah was willing to call that right out of the gate for Brewer.

The Baylor graduate transfer finished 19 for 27 for 233 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception on a Hail Mary pass to close the first half.

There is nothing more that anyone could have asked for, or should have expected, from Brewer in the opener versus an FCS team. His decision-making was excellent, he got rid of the ball quickly, he completed passes to eight different targets, and he kept a handful of plays alive with his legs. Overall, he looked comfortable and, at a minimum, this is positive momentum going to BYU on Sept. 11.

It should be noted that, of Brewer’s eight incompletions, at least four of them were drops. Of those four, two of them were going for touchdowns in the red zone (more on that below). That’s not on Brewer, but is rather a problem in need of fixing (more on that below, too).

“I think it’s good to get a win, but I definitely think we need to improve in a lot of areas heading into next week, which I think we will,” Brewer said. “A win is a win, we’ll take it, but we definitely need to improve.”

Added Whittingham: “I thought he did a good job. His numbers were good. Not great, but good. I thought he was poised in the pocket, did a nice job keeping his eyes downfield. He was accurate, and he did a good job running the offense. I thought he was a positive.”

Struggles in the red zone

The statistics will show that Utah finished 7 for 8 in the red zone, meaning it scored seven times in eight trips inside the 20-yard line. Those numbers do not tell the whole story.

On third-and-goal from the 7, Brewer hit running back TJ Pledger right in the chest at around the 2, only to have Pledger drop the ball. Utah settled for a Jadon Redding 25-yard field goal to open the scoring.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham as the Utah Utes host the Weber State Wildcats in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Later in the first quarter, Brewer went to the end zone looking to hit an over-the-shoulder throw to tight end Cole Fotheringham, but the ball went off his hands. A 31-yard field goal from Redding gave the Utes a 13-7 lead.

Brewer said postgame he felt like they left 14 points on the field, while Whittingham noted that his team does not count field goals as wins in the red zone.

“It’s not for a lack of work on it, I can tell you that,” Whittingham said. “We pay a lot of attention to it in practice and work on it a high percentage of the time, we just have to execute better. We just need to get better.”

To cap off the red zone struggles, the Utes had first-and-goal at the 5. Micah Bernard was stuffed for a two-yard loss, then Brewer hit Britain Covey on a couple of short passes to set up fourth-and-goal at the 1. The ball went to Chris Curry, who was promptly stuffed after the offensive line didn’t hold up.

Red zone execution was just one problem. Whittingham walked into his press conference with what appeared to be a crumpled 3x5 index card, which he used to reference what he thought went wrong. Here is a partial list of what Whittingham thought went wrong.

Giving up a 17-play drive that lasted 7:28, although that ended in a goal-line stand and no points. Curry getting stuffed on fourth-and-goal, Rashid Shaheed’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Tavion Thomas lost a fumble, Pledger’s dropped touchdown pass, burning a first-half timeout before a field goal attempt because they only had 10 players on the field, and a missed PAT after a delay-of-game penalty.

If Whittingham needed any material to help make a point this week in practice, he will have no shortage.

“I stopped writing them down there were so many,” Whittingham said. “Right now, based on tonight, we’re not good enough, so we have to get better.”

Devin Lloyd was all over the place.

That isn’t a surprise anymore, but it is worth noting that Lloyd, a Butkus Award finalist and a preseason All-American linebacker, was terrific against Weber State.

His 12 total tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble set the tone for a defense that was very good for long stretches Thursday, giving up just 270 total yards, including 57 rushing yards.

Among the many things that strike you about Lloyd, his instincts in the middle of a play are at a different level than most other players on the field.

On third-and-14 from its own 23, Weber State freshman quarterback Bronson Barron, who was solid Thursday in passing for 213 yards on 21-for-33 passing, had a pass go off the hands of his intended receiver. Clark Phillips III got his helmet on the ball, and Lloyd came from behind the play to make an impressive diving catch.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) celebrates an interception as the Utah Utes host the Weber State Wildcats in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

The offense needed just three plays to go 31 yards over 1:08, capped by a 12-yard Tavion Thomas touchdown for a 19-7 lead.

Lloyd said at Pac-12 media day that he was getting late-second and early-third round NFL draft grades following last season. Whittingham has been pretty adamant when the topic comes up that Lloyd could work his way into the first round.

That notion has begun to pick up steam among some NFL scouts, and Thursday was an example of why.

A Tavion Thomas coming-out party

The situation at running back was always going to be by committee until there was at least one game so Pledger, Curry, Bernard and Thomas could all get reps in an effort to begin separating themselves.

One game is too small of a sample size to make any sweeping judgments, but again, this is the baseline, and Thomas is coming out of the opener with the most juice.

A transfer from Independence Community College who began his career at Cincinnati, Thomas rushed for 107 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries, while looking very much like what Whittingham and running backs coach Kiel McDonald have billed him as. A guy with more bruising size than the rest of the options, plus the type of speed you don’t always see with guys who are 6-foot-2, 230 pounds.

“We’ll see, Whittingham said. “You can’t put the ball on the ground so that was the big downside of it. But he did show a taste and a little bit of a glimpse of what he is capable of. We will look at the film and grade it hard and come up with a pecking order. It won’t be a bunch of or, or, or, or this week on the depth chart. We’re going to have a 1-2-3-4 order this week and we’ll see what the film says.”

Micah Bernard, a third-year redshirt freshman who has patiently waited his turn, had 35 rushing yards and another 41 on three receptions. He, like Thomas, comes out of the opener with momentum, plus reason to believe his role will expand moving forward.

Pledger disappeared after the dropped touchdown pass, and Curry only had three carries, which is worth noting, because Whittingham intends to have more of a defined pecking order next week, whereas this week the four running backs were all separated by an “OR” on the depth chart.

To close this topic for now, Thomas certainly passed the eye test as a guy you feel comfortable giving the ball to 15 to 20 times over the course of a game.

Offensive line concerns are valid

Whittingham has painted the offensive line’s collective health as his most pressing concern, going as far as to say the five best guys would not play Thursday because of injuries.

For starters, Jaren Kump, who started all five games at right tackle last season, but has been penciled in at left tackle, dressed, but did not play. That is significant because Kump is the best tackle on the roster, but the good news is, Whittingham offered optimism that he would be ready for BYU.

Without Kump, Bam Olesani started at left tackle, Braeden Daniels at left guard, and All-Pac-12 lineman Nick Ford at center. Projected starting right guard Sataoa Laumea did not dress, so backup center Paul Maile kicked outside to take that spot, while Simi Moala started at right tackle.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah fans in the MUSS cheer on the PAC-12 football game between the University of Utah and Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

The big takeaway here is Kump not playing, but potentially being ready for BYU. If Kump does play, there are two options.

If the coaching staff trusts Olaseni, leave him where he is, Kump slides in at right tackle over Moala. The other play, assuming everyone is available, is leaving Moala where he is at right tackle, Kump slides in at left tackle.

All things being equal, this writer’s opinion on Utah’s best five from left to right is Olaseni-Daniels-Ford-Laumea-Kump.