The University of Utah football team has reached midseason, and it has been a rollercoaster.
A preseason national ranking, two non-conference losses, the starting quarterback quitting, the death of a teammate, and contention in the Pac-12 South, maybe unlikely so given what has gone on through almost two months of play.
Either way, players, position groups and performances stand out, so let’s highlight those as the Utes head towards the homestretch of the regular season.
Offensive MVP: Cam Rising, QB
Rising wasn’t the opening day starter, but his insertion late in the third quarter at San Diego State on Sept. 18 has fueled this offense.
Through the win over Arizona State, Rising has thrown for 872 yards, nine touchdowns and just two interceptions in roughly 14 quarters of play, including three overtimes vs. the Aztecs. The fourth-year sophomore’s QBR of 88.5 ranks him second nationally, and based on nothing but the eye test, he is seemingly getting better every week.
Against the Sun Devils, Rising was 21-for-33 for 247 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, but the second half of that game saw him complete 13 of 15 passes for 140 yards and two scores.
Utah’s offensive DNA is generally cemented in the run, but Rising can sling it, and Utah is better off for it.
Defensive MVP: Devin Lloyd, LB
Much was expected of Lloyd, who spurned second and third-round NFL Draft grades for one more season at Utah, and he has not disappointed.
His play has almost gone under the radar, because what he is doing every week is expected at this point. Lloyd leads Utah with 61 total tackles, which includes three games of at least 13. He has five sacks, two interceptions, has forced a fumble, and broken up three passes.
As one might have expected, he has been all over the field, working sideline to sideline in anchoring a Utes defense that has spent long stretches over the last month being impenetrable.
A finalist for the Butkus Award in 2020, Lloyd is likely to at least be a finalist again for the honor, which is presented annually to the nation’s top linebacker.
Biggest breakout player: Dalton Kincaid, TE
Devaughn Vele, Junior Tafuna, Karene Reid and other options come to mind here, but Kincaid gets the nod for what was a very productive first half.
A former FCS All-American at San Diego, Kincaid arrived in 2020, but did not have a huge impact in four games. During fall camp, Kyle Whittingham labeled Kincaid among the Pac-12′s best-kept secrets, which has looked pretty accurate.
Through six games, Kincaid had 16 catches for 232 yards and three touchdowns, but his greatest value may be his ability to block out on the edge, which has been noticeable on a handful of touchdown plays.
Kincaid’s emergence has allowed Utah to be more diverse, offering more “12″ and “13″ personnel looks combined with the Utes’ other two capable tight ends, Brant Kuithe and Cole Fotheringham.
Biggest play of the season: The flea-flicker at USC
On fourth-and-1 from the USC 37-yard line late in the first half with Utah leading, 14-10, the Utes lined up to go for it, but the Trojans called timeout.
Rising said postgame that on that fourth-and-1, he heard the call in his helmet, read the wrong wristband, and believed the call to be the flea-flicker. The actual call was a run, followed by a spike, and presumably a field goal attempt, but during the timeout, Rising liked the mistaken call. He, Whittingham, and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig decided to stick with the flea-flicker.
Once play resumed, Rising handed off to Pledger, who pitched it back to Rising, who hit Vele in stride after he beat his defender and outran two others for the score with 10 seconds left and a 21-10 halftime lead.
Utah got the ball out of the locker room, scored on its first two possessions, and that was essentially the end.
Biggest play of the season, and potentially the biggest win of the season when all is said and done.
Best (assistant) coaching job: Kiel McDonald, RBs
This is splitting hairs because you can make a case for any of Whittingham’s assistants, but the situation at running back has been cloudy only until a couple of weeks ago.
First it was TJ Pledger, then it was Tavion Thomas, then it was Micah Bernard, then back to Thomas, then back to Bernard with Pledger mixed in, then back to Thomas, who appears to have firm control of the position at this point.
It’s been a balancing act of who is practicing well, who isn’t fumbling, who looks the most capable, who can the staff trust the most. It was a different answer for a while, which doesn’t make things any easier when you’re trying to prepare for a game.
Credit to Whittingham, who kept believing Thomas could be the true No. 1 option, but also credit to McDonald for keeping Thomas’s head above water as he dealt with ball security issues for the first four games of the season. Thomas has been very adamant that McDonald has been the one to help steer him through, not only the ball security issues, but also the mental side of things as he got benched and tried to work his way back.
McDonald is one of the more respected assistant coaches on the team, and Thomas reemerging after being in the doghouse is another example of the work he has done.