Analysis: Utah football dominates Stanford behind 441 rushing yards, another big offensive line effort

Utah leads the Pac-12 South by 1.5 games, plus head-to-head tiebreakers vs. Arizona State, UCLA, and USC

Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) breaks the tackle attempt of Stanford cornerback Salim Turner-Muhammad (28) for a touchdown during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

Stanford, Calif. • It took the University of Utah all of one offensive drive on Friday night at Stanford to establish that the chaos sometimes associated with night kickoffs in the Pac-12 was not going to apply.

Nine plays, 65 yards, 4:03. The Utes did anything they wanted, mostly on the ground, while the Cardinal offered no resistance. That is how the first drive of the night went, but that was also the totality of the evening. Utah was the better team, it wasn’t particularly close, and the 52-7 final score was a modicum of what the Utes accomplished.

This team’s march to a Pac-12 South title left Northern California inline. A trip to the desert, complete with a potential clincher, is on deck.

441 yards on the ground

Stanford, which is responsible for No. 4 Oregon’s lone loss this fall, entered Friday night with not only the Pac-12′s worst rushing defense, but one of the worst in the nation at 206 yards per game, good for 120th out of 130 FBS teams.

For as good as Cam Rising has been for Utah over the last six weeks, the Utes had to come out against the Cardinal and take advantage of that horrid statistic. They did just that.

(D. Ross Cameron | AP) Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) hands off to running back Tavion Thomas during the second quarter of the team's NCAA college football game against Stanford, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Stanford, Calif.

Utah won the coin toss, took the ball for the second week in a row, and made no bones about what they wanted to do. Within the aforementioned nine-play, 65-yard drive, the Utes ran seven times for 47 yards. The last six plays of the drive were runs, capped by a 10-yard Tavion Thomas touchdown run on first-and-goal.

There was no need for offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to reinvent the wheel, or to put too much pressure on Rising. Forty-six of the 68 plays Utah ran were runs. Twenty of those 46 went to Thomas, who continues to be effective as a guy getting 20-plus carries every week.

Thomas had 177 yards and four touchdowns, Micah Bernard had 110 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, and T.J. Pledger had 107 yards, 96 of them coming on a second-quarter touchdown run. Saturday marked the first time in program history three players rushed for at least 100 yards in the same game. All three are averaging at least 6.1 yards per carry for the season.

In a span of two weeks, Thomas has gone from having a good season to having an all-time season by a Ute. He now has consecutive four-touchdown games, and is one rushing TD shy of tying the school single-season record of 15, shared by Zack Moss and John White.

As Thomas is one TD shy of tying the record, keep in mind that Utah has three regular-season games left, plus a likely appearance in the Pac-12 championship game and a bowl game after that.

What happens when Keaton Bills is ready to come back?

Rising said it, Thomas said it, some other players tweeted it postgame on Friday night. The offensive line, colloquially referred to as ‘o-block,’ found a different gear against Stanford.

From left to right, Bam Olaseni, Nick Ford, Paul Maile, Sataoa Laumea, and Braeden Daniels were dominant up front for four quarters. Just push, after push, after push, and when it was over, the Utes had a whopping 18 runs of at least 10 yards, including Pledger’s 96-yard score and a 58-yard touchdown run from Thomas early in the second quarter. Furthermore, Rising has not been sacked in a month, partially because he is mobile and can get outside the pocket and run, but also because the offensive line has been stout.

This offensive line paved the way for 260 rushing yards against UCLA, and 441 vs. Stanford, the fourth-most rushing yards in a single game in program history. The question now becomes, with things rolling, what happens when Keaton Bills is ready to return?

Bills, Utah’s starting left guard, missed his second straight game Friday due to injury, so Ford, usually the center, kicked outside again to left guard, while Paul Maile stepped up and manned Ford’s center spot. These were the two best games the offensive line has played, so interrupting that to get Bills back in there does not seem prudent.

Thinking out loud: Maile has had a handful of bad snaps over the last two weeks, one of which Rising couldn’t handle Friday night and lost on a fumble. Ford is Utah’s best center, but he is also by far the most-versatile lineman on the roster. Ford has been good at left guard. If Kyle Whittingham and offensive line coach Jim Harding believe they can live with Maile at center, keep this group intact as it is, even when Bills is ready. Things are going too well right now to mess with it, especially after how the season started.

The third play of the night was the biggest

This may seem like a benign sequence, but in hindsight, Utah’s third play from scrimmage should be considered its biggest of the night.

After opting to take the ball, the first drive did not start well. Rising’s pocket collapsed after the first snap, but he made two yards out of it anyway. Rising then missed Thomas with a pass to set up third-and-8 from his own 37.

Rising’s protection held up and he calmly hit Solomon Enis for 18 yards and a first down. A few things here. One, that might have been Rising’s best pass of the night. Two, that pass extended a drive that ended in a touchdown, not to mention Utah setting a tone on the ground. Three, Enis has been dinged up and has not played a huge role since catching seven passes at San Diego State. Getting him going would be a huge boon.

Cam Rising was not as sharp as he’s been, but he didn’t need to be

It is perfectly acceptable if you choose to nitpick the following, mostly because Rising has been outstanding and this Utah season is going where it’s going in large part because of him.

Rising was not as sharp as he’s been, finishing 13-for-22 for 140 yards in three-plus quarters before giving way to Ja’Quinden Jackson. He sailed a couple of passes, missed a couple more, and the lost fumble may have been avoided had he fallen on it instead of trying to pick it up initially.

(D. Ross Cameron | AP) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham signals a play to the team during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Stanford, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Stanford, Calif.

With all of that said, Whittingham balked at the notion that Rising was less sharp, and even if he was, it doesn’t really matter when your offense puts up 52 points and runs for 441 yards.

The aforementioned 18-yard pass to Enis was one thing, but Rising’s best drive of the night came in the second quarter, when he converted twice on third down. One was a 28-yard catch-and-run to Bernard, the other was an 11-yard strike to Enis on third-and-9 from the Stanford 22-yard line. Thomas scored from 11 yards out on the next play to give the Utes a 28-0 lead.

Again, nitpicking the above is fine. What good is a 52-7 win if I can’t find things to complain about.

What is the Pac-12 South clinching scenario now?

There are a lot of scenarios in play, so let’s try to keep this as simple as possible for now with Saturday’s results pending.

Utah is 1.5 games up on Arizona State, plus it owns the tiebreaker via a 35-21 win over the Sun Devils on Oct. 9. If Arizona State loses to USC on Saturday, and Utah wins at Arizona next weekend, the Utes win the South Division for the third non-COVID season in a row and would play in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 3 in Las Vegas.

However Saturday shakes out, Utah will still be in control when it goes to Tucson. It has the tiebreaker over Arizona State, and also over UCLA and USC. The Bruins are on a bye this week, while the Trojans are on the road in Tempe.

Other things on my mind

• Utah is a blocked punt, and maybe a defensive stop or two at Oregon State away from being 6-0 in the Pac-12 and undoubtedly ranked when the next College Football Playoff rankings are released on Tuesday. Alas ...

• Mike Williams handled Utah’s one and only punt vs. Stanford, not Cameron Peasley, who has been in the doghouse since having two blocked at Oregon State. The second was wiped away because of a penalty, but that hardly matters. Whittingham called that situation “fluid” as another game week begins on Monday.

• Devin Lloyd’s interception at the Stanford 2, which he returned for a touchdown, was an athletic play that not every linebacker can make. Lloyd said postgame he was surprised he came down with the ball. Watching the play live, yes, Lloyd seemed surprised he caught it.

• Stanford, which was without starting quarterback Tanner McKee, was shockingly bad, as was the atmosphere at Stanford Stadium.

• Nine players have at least nine catches. That includes three tight ends and Bernard, who is a sturdy pass-catching option out of the backfield. That is a good problem for Rising to have, how to spread it around to all of these guys.

• For long stretches of the second half, when the outcome was no longer in doubt, Whittingham looked visibly angry. Again, what good is a 52-7 win if you can’t find things to nitpick and get mad about?

• Utah scored five times in six trips to the red zone, including four touchdowns. The one miss yielded a cringe. The Utes had second-and-goal at the 1, lost a yard on a Brant Kuithe sweep to the left, lost another yard when Thomas got stuffed. On fourth-and-goal from the 3, Rising’s pass to Enis was incomplete. The second-guessing there goes as follows: On first-and-goal from the 5, Thomas bulldozed his way up the middle for four to second-and-goal from the 1. The offensive was doing anything it wanted all night, so why not go back to that?