Analysis: Utah football fixes red zone issues, defense survives Devin Lloyd-less first half in win over UCLA

Utes are in control of the Pac-12 South with four games to go, starting with a trip to Stanford on Friday

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) celebrates his touchdown with Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) in the second half as the University of Utah hosts the UCLA Bruins in Pac-12 football, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The stretch run is now upon the University of Utah football team, but to get there, the Utes had to go through some stuff over the last five weeks.

The starting quarterback quit, but the new starting quarterback has been a nonstop rush of fresh air. A teammate died. The Utes rallied around that, won a game at USC, where they never win, then buried that teammate two days later. A win over Arizona State, a troubling loss at Oregon State, Saturday night’s 44-24 win over UCLA.

October is now over and through it all, as November and the final third of this season beckon, one thing is clear: Utah is in charge of the Pac-12 South.

Excellent showing in the red zone

Utah’s struggles in the red zone last week at Oregon State are well-documented, specifically when the Utes got inside the 5-yard line.

In the wake of four touchdowns in eight red-zone trips, plus two turnovers on downs, Kyle Whittingham last Monday lamented the fact the Utes didn’t run more in those situations, while calling for more physicality up front.

He got both against UCLA, and the result was five touchdowns in five trips inside the Bruins 20-yard line, including Utah’s first four possessions of the game.

Whittingham noted last week after Oregon State that when the play-calling works, there is praise, and when it doesn’t work, there are going to be questions and second-guessing. Well, yes, that is generally how these things work, but seriously, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig heeded Whittingham’s call for running and physicality.

Opening drive, first-and-goal at the 10: Tavion Thomas, 10-yard touchdown run.

Second drive, third-and-4 at the 8: A little delayed draw up the middle to Thomas, who makes a cut to his left, touchdown.

Fourth drive, second-and-3 at the 10: Thomas, another 10-yard run after a big push up front.

Everything was working in the first half, and a lot of that was because Ludwig and the offense were being very straightforward about things and going right at UCLA. Nothing cute, nothing too intricate. When Thomas is running well, he is a wrecking ball. When Thomas is running well, Ludwig should continually be going to him in the red zone, not to mention short-yardage situations. Utah went away from that too much at Oregon State, and it contributed to the loss. It went back to more of that against UCLA, and it was a big contributor to the win.

The offensive line was outstanding

Whittingham said postgame that starting left guard Keaton Bills was unavailable, which explained a surprise move along the offensive line.

Without Bills, center Nick Ford kicked outside to left guard, while fourth-year sophomore Paul Maile handled center duties, leaving left tackle Bam Olaseni, right guard Sataoa Laumea and right tackle Braeden Daniels in their usual spots.

That unit, with Maile in and Ford moving, was outstanding as Utah rushed for 290 yards as a team and kept Rising upright for four quarters. The opening drive set the tone as Thomas had rushes of 8, 6, and 10 yards, respectively, in finishing with 160 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries.

The offensive line has had its issues. There were injuries late in camp, obvious inexperience early in the season, and there has been plenty of moving around through eight games, but Saturday belonged to that group.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes offensive lineman Bamidele Olaseni (77) and offensive lineman Nick Ford (55) get ready to take the field as the University of Utah hosts the UCLA Bruins in Pac-12 football, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“The offensive line deserves a huge shoutout,” Whittingham said. “You don’t get 290 yards rushing without a lot of movement going on up front, and our offensive line rose to the occasion, rose to the challenge.”

This isn’t news, but it is worth repeating. Ford is perhaps the most-indispensable player on offense. He has started at least one game in his career at all five offensive line spots, Saturday being his seventh career start at left guard. He has been All-Pac-12 twice, while primarily manning two different positions, right guard in 2019 and center in 2020.

Maile caused everyone to groan when his second snap of the night to Rising was high, and Rising had to jump to corral it, but he settled in and won his battle up front all night.

That many rushing yards should bear optimism that Utah’s offensive line has figured it all out with four games to go.

The defense in the first half, without Devin Lloyd

The big early subplot Saturday night was Utah’s defense playing without Devin Lloyd, who was suspended for the first half after being ejected for targeting at Oregon State.

Karene Reid and Hayden Fury both started alongside Nephi Sewell as Utah came out in a 4-3 defense, and for those two quarters without its All-American linebacker, the defense was good. Not great, but certainly good. In that first half, the defense gave up 177 total yards, but it was on the field for 40 plays, which is a lot.

There was a 16-play drive that ended in just a field goal, and a 12-play drive that ended in a touchdown as UCLA was playing with second-year freshman quarterback Ethan Garbers in place of injured senior star Dorian Thompson-Robinson. To get out of the first half having only given up 10 points without Lloyd was a win.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive tackle Hauati Pututau (41) is celebrated with the safety after he sacked UCLA Bruins quarterback Ethan Garbers (4) as the University of Utah hosts the UCLA Bruins in Pac-12 football, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Garbers has wheels, but is more of a pocket passer than Thompson-Robinson. Garbers playing with Lloyd out was a perceived advantage for Utah as the game got going.

When Utah wins the coin toss, it almost exclusively defers to the second half. The Utes won the toss on Saturday, but without Lloyd, Whittingham opted to take the ball. The thinking there was, with Lloyd available for the second half, taking the ball to open the game would give Utah one more second-half defensive series with Lloyd that it wouldn’t normally have.

However Whittingham wants to justify it, Utah scored on its first four possessions, Lloyd had three tackles, a sack, a pass breakup after halftime, and he did it with less wear to his body than he would normally endure.

There shouldn’t be any complaints from anyone about how that all panned out.

“It was weird,” Sewell said of Lloyd’s first-half absence. “I’ve been out for some games, Devin’s definitely shared the same feeling, definitely weird. Even though he wasn’t in, every time we came to the sideline, he was keeping us upbeat. That’s just the leader he is.”

Cam Rising punted. Yes, punted

First, the quarterback stuff.

Rising was 17-for-27 for 179 yards and a four-yard second-quarter touchdown pass to Dalton Kincaid. He missed some throws and he tried to squeeze a couple into too-tight windows, but he also made a couple of throws he had no business making. He continues to engineer drives that are largely free of mistakes. If you want to argue that he should slide when he leaves the pocket, that is fair and valid.

OK, the punting.

On fourth-and-2 from the UCLA 44 inside 7 minutes to go in the third quarter, Utah lined up to go for it, only to have Rising drop a quick-kick to the 9-yard line.

On fourth-and-1 from the UCLA 49 midway through the fourth quarter, Utah again lined up to go for it, only for Rising to again quick-kick it. This one initially looked like it would sail out of the end zone, but it bounced at about the 5, Money Parks downed it at the 6, and the Utes had the Bruins pinned.

UCLA’s first snap after it got pinned at the 6 saw Hauati Pututau get to Garbers in the end zone for a safety. Utah then took the ensuing free kick 58 yards in seven plays, capped by a 24-yard Thomas touchdown run to cap the scoring.

Social media had fun with Rising’s punting, and it offered a lighthearted press conference moment, but here’s the reality. Rising punting twice shines a blinding light on Whittingham’s special teams situation, which has been a mess, especially last week.

At Oregon State, Cameron Peasley had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown, then had a second punt blocked, but it was waved off because of a penalty. If the punt unit had performed better in Corvallis, it stands to reason Rising would not have been punting. Whittingham didn’t exactly offer anything to the contrary when asked about it.

“You get two punts blocked, you don’t have a lot of confidence,” Whittingham said.

For what it’s worth, Rising does have a punting background. As a senior at Newbury Park High School in 2017, he averaged 36.6 yards on 13 punts, had a long of 62 yards, and put six of those 13 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Utah leads the Pac-12 South with four games to go

As alluded to at the top, the Utes control the Pac-12 South. Maybe you thought Utah would win the South this fall, but surely not under the circumstances it has dealt with.

Utah’s win, combined with Arizona State losing at home to Washington State on Saturday, gives it a one-game lead over the Sun Devils, plus the tiebreaker via a 35-24 head-to-head win on Oct. 16. Utah leads UCLA now by two games, plus the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Bruins, for all intents and purposes, lost an elimination game on Saturday night.

Unless Utah completely implodes, it is going to be hard for anyone else to represent the South Division in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 3 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

The Utes still have to go to Stanford and Arizona, while hosting Oregon and Colorado to close the season. On paper, there should be at least three wins there, although a trip to Palo Alto on Friday (8:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1), on a short week feels like a prime letdown opportunity if Utah isn’t careful.

Arizona State has USC and Arizona at home, wrapped around trips to Washington and Oregon State. The Sun Devils have been dreadful for their last six quarters. Are there two wins there? Yes. Are there three? Probably? Asking Arizona State to sweep those four feels like too much.

Utah fans should not start making firm plans for Dec. 3 just yet, but they should at least give a cursory look at travel options at this point.

Other things on my mind

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The family of Aaron Lowe, including his mother Donna Lowe-Stern, Lowe's older brother, Christopher Jackson and Lowe's sister Davetta Jones weep as Aaron Lowe is remembered Saturday. For the first time in school history, the University of Utah has officially retired the No. 22 in its football program. The designation happened during the UtesÕ game against UCLA at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Retiring No. 22 honors two players who have lost their lives in the past year, running back Ty Jordan, who died Dec. 25 and defensive back Aaron Lowe, who died Sept. 26.

• The No. 22 retirement ceremony for Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe was emotional, and well-done.

• Utah won a game by 20 points, in which its best defensive player, among the best linebackers in the country, was unavailable for the first half, and didn’t have a profound impact in the second half.

• UCLA was 4-for-16 on third down, and 7-for-9 on fourth down. That fourth-down figure feels a little hollow because the Bruins didn’t score a ton, but it should be deemed unacceptable by Whittingham.

• Devaughn Vele had a team-high seven targets. That is noteworthy because Vele is getting more and more comfortable, continuing to become a significant piece of the offense. He and Rising nearly connected on a flea-flicker touchdown, ala the USC game, but the pass was broken up.

• Wildly underrated game by defensive tackle Hauati Pututau. Deflected a second-quarter pass that wound up as a Sewell interception, which led to Utah’s fourth touchdown of the night. He also had the safety as part of 1.5 tackles for a loss.

• A Utah athletics official said Saturday night they were going to submit Rising’s name to the league office for Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week consideration. It isn’t that far-fetched.

• Utah is 4-0 this season at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It has won 15 straight home games (in non-COVID seasons), dating back to a 21-7 loss to Washington on Sept. 15, 2018. Taking 2020 into account, the Utes have won 17 of their last 18 at home.