TribUte newsletter: Utah football’s offensive line looks better now than it has all season

Could Utah go to the Rose Bowl without winning the Pac-12 title first?

(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.

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The University of Utah’s offensive line has not been without its issues.

There were injuries late in training camp, there have been injuries throughout this season, the group was collectively dominated by BYU on Sept. 11. There has been shuffling at most positions, and through eight games, six different starting offensive lines have taken the field.

Through it all, that sixth different starting unit, which took the field vs. UCLA on Saturday, would have you believe that the offensive line, normally a big strength at Utah, is back to being just that.

On Saturday, Utah rushed for 290 yards against a Bruins rushing defense that was yielding a Pac-12-best 94.8 yards per game, good for 13th in all of FBS. Tavion Thomas rushed for 160 of those yards and four touchdowns as the offense ripped off 11 runs of at least 10 yards behind that offensive line.

“I just think early on, and it is an excuse, there were a lot of injuries,” Utes offensive line coach Jim Harding said Monday after practice. “Now, they’ve kind of gotten into a groove, they know what their role is on the offensive line and everyone has accepted that. It’s really a next-man-up mentality.”

Added Thomas: “They’ve been big up front, definitely assignment-sound. They’re definitely tough and nasty now. They’ve been working and it’s starting to pay off on the field.”

In staying with a theme of the offensive line’s season, typical left guard Keaton Bills was unavailable vs. UCLA, so versatile All-Pac-12 center Nick Ford kicked outside to that spot, while backup center Paul Maile handled those duties well, save for a high snap or two.

With Utah on a short week ahead of playing at Stanford on Friday (8:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1), Kyle Whittingham on Monday called Bills a “game-day decision.” Harding later in the day said Bills had made progress, but did not elaborate.

If Bills cannot go, Ford at left guard and Maile at center again are a safe bet, with Bam Olaseni at left tackle, Sataoa Laumea at right guard and Branden Daniels at right tackle.

What’s on my mind, Utah or otherwise

• With Oregon debuting at No. 4 in the first College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday, there is a possibility that Utah doesn’t win the Pac-12 title, but still goes to the Rose Bowl anyway. That would be fascinating, the program’s first Rose Bowl berth coming via the backdoor, without a conference championship.

• It would take a complete, incomprehensible meltdown by Utah to not win the Pac-12 South. Yes, the Pac-12 does tend to be fickle, and weird things do happen, but the Utes are alone atop the division and own head-to-head tiebreakers over the three teams below them. Incomprehensible is the correct word.

• If this newsletter hit your inbox on Thursday, you are presumably reading it before the basketball team takes on Division II Westminster in an exhibition at 6 p.m. You have not seen one second of practice, but trust me, I haven’t seen much more than you. I am just as curious as you are to see what Craig Smith’s first Utes team looks like.