Analysis: Brant Kuithe, Utah football’s best pass catcher, is likely done for the season. Now what?

Plus: Struggles in the red zone and more from Utah’s 34-13 win at Arizona State.

Tempe, Ariz. • The first real telltale sign that there was something wrong with Brant Kuithe on Saturday night didn’t come until he was already out of the injury tent behind the University of Utah sideline at Sun Devil Stadium.

After he emerged without his shoulder pads, with his injured right knee wrapped in ice, Jordan Noyes walked up to him. The Utes’ third-year sophomore kicker moved close to Kuithe, they spoke for a moment, then engaged in a brief hug.

You’re not walking up to your injured teammate and hugging him like that if it’s good news.

The fact Kyle Whittingham indicated postgame that Kuithe is likely done for the season felt like a formality.

Utah’s season, trending upwards the last three weeks after a frustrating season-opening loss at Florida, now faces its first dilemma. With Cam Rising at the wheel, these Utes now face the prospect of a rugged four-game October with the quarterback’s most-important weapon unavailable.

Nobody said this season was going to be easy for these Utes, not with the preseason expectations heaped upon them off a trip to the Rose Bowl, but things just got a lot more uncertain.

What comes now after the Kuithe injury?

I spent a lot of space in the game story off Utah’s 34-13 win diving into the Kuithe injury, but there’s a lot more to consider after letting everything percolate.

It cannot be overstated how important Kuithe is to this football team. Forget the actual football for a moment. The fifth-year senior is a captain, he is widely viewed as a good teammate, and he has taken more ownership as a leader in the locker room. From those standpoints, this is a massive loss for a team expected to contend for the Pac-12 title, while still holding on to College Football Playoff hopes.

From a football standpoint, to say this is a tough loss doesn’t do the situation enough justice. Kuithe is Utah’s leading, most-capable pass catcher, not to mention the offense’s most versatile player. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig hasn’t fully opened up the playbook, but at some point, the possibility existed that Kuithe would line up outside and/or in the slot. He was on pace to eclipse 50 catches, 600 yards and 10 touchdowns this fall. That’s a lot of production to replace.

So, now what? Dalton Kincaid, like Kuithe, was already a focal point of the passing attack, but now there will be even more of an onus on the fifth-year senior. Rising even admitted postgame what everyone already knows, that Kincaid is now the No. 1 inside guy and will be expected to produce.

Beyond Kincaid, we saw a little bit of what tight end Thomas Yassmin can do on Saturday, registering a 72-yard catch-and-run from Rising late in the third quarter that nearly went for six. Whittingham has sounded optimistic on Yassmin since at least the spring, but this is something different now. Utah needs Yassmin to play a larger role.

Beyond Yassmin, Whittingham noted that Munir McClain’s role will increase. That’s an interesting subplot to keep an eye on as McClain is a converted wide receiver who has played sparingly since arriving in 2021.

Kuithe’s college career potentially ending on this note is brutal. He flirted with the NFL Draft for the second straight offseason, but returned for one more season after his draft projection was not good enough. However, he also wanted to come back because he thought there was a lot more winning to do this fall.

That latter part is what stands out to me about Kuithe the most, talking to him during his Rose Bowl week in Los Angeles, and hearing the conviction in his voice when he spoke about what 2022 could be.

It is unlikely, but Kuithe does have the option to return for a sixth year in 2023 since this injury happened in his fourth game and he has not taken a redshirt during his career.

Struggles in the red zone

The big complaint from fans during the game was the play calling and execution in the red zone. Yes, I agree, this is the big nitpick from Saturday.

Utah officially went 5-for-6 in the red zone. Whittingham does not count field goals as red zone wins, so by that logic, the Utes went 3-for-6. There were plenty of frustrating moments.

First-and-goal on the 7: Ja’Quinden Jackson up the middle for 2, a Rising 1-yard pass to Micah Bernard that never had a chance, Jaylon Glover with a 1-yard loss, Jordan Noyes with a 23-yard field goal. Ugly.

First-and-goal on the 8 (all of this is out of the shotgun): Tavion Thomas up the middle for 1, Bernard up the middle for 4, Bernard up the middle for 1, Rising’s end zone pass intended for Kincaid on fourth-and-goal from the 2 is broken up.

Third-and-2 on the 5: Thomas gets stuffed for no gain. Utah then lines up to go on fourth-and-2, but a false start backs everything up 5 yards. Noyes with a 28-yard field goal.

Taking all of the above into account, I think a lot of it falls on execution, but you can get on Ludwig’s play calling, too. On the first set of plays ending in the 23-yard field goal, it didn’t feel like Utah was being aggressive enough, which is something Whittingham lamented after the Utes left points on the field in the red zone at Florida.

Ludwig, himself, when he met the media recently self-criticized some of his own calls in the red zone.

Forget Southern Utah and San Diego State. This was a clear issue at The Swamp, and now at Arizona State. None of this feels like it can’t be fixed, but it does feel like a factor, potentially brewing into something real if it is not properly addressed.

The defense has been outstanding

Unprompted postgame, Karene Reid offered that he believed the intensity in practice kicked up a notch in the days before Arizona State.

That seems to check out because from the very outset, Morgan Scalley’s defense was flying all over the place. Utah’s opening defensive series set a tone. On second-and-10 from the Arizona State 23, Lander Barton came on a blitz and dropped Emory Jones for a loss of seven. On the next play, Gabe Reid obliterated a would-be blocker and got to Jones for an 11-yard loss, forcing the Sun Devils punt.

The defense’s raw numbers play on any night against any opponent: Giving up 261 passing yards qualifies as good in this day and age of football, even if Utah came into the night yielding just 90 passing yards per game thanks to SUU and San Diego State. Eight tackles for a loss, six rushing yards yielded, five sacks, three turnovers, three pass breakups.

After an ugly defensive effort at Florida, in which the front seven got worked over, the Gators ran for 280 yards, and Utah missed an absurd 27 tackles, Morgan Scalley’s unit has played the last three weeks at a high level. Again, take the SUU and San Diego State wins for what they are, but after Florida, Utah’s defense needed to respond, and it has. Saturday, though, against a Power Five opponent, felt like a large, tangible step forward.

Cole Bishop, specifically, was outstanding. With each passing game, going back to late last season, he looks like the next great Utah safety. Against Arizona State, the true sophomore had a sack, an interception, and a pass breakup.

“He’s an absolute phenom at safety,” Whittingham said. “He’s everything you look for. So athletic in coverage, great blitzer, tackler, he’s the whole package. You’re seeing one of the safeties in the Pac-12, one of the best in the country in Cole Bishop.”

Other things on my mind

• There’s a lot more to be said about the Utes’ running back situation Saturday night. There was a lot going on there in Tempe.

• Bishop had a second-half targeting call overturned, which was a huge break for Utah as his ejection would have meant a first-half suspension vs. Oregon State. For what it’s worth, Bishop, Whittingham, and Rising all said they did not believe it should have been targeting. Whittingham, specifically, praised the officials for interpreting the rule correctly in this case. Targeting, of course, has long been a point of contention among coaches, players, fans, and media.

• The second Rising-to-Kincaid touchdown in the first quarter was an NFL-level catch. Rising did a nice job of rolling out to his right, buying time, then jammed a pass in there that Kincaid essentially stole from a defender, with a second defender draped on his back. As that play unfolded, it seemed destined to end in nothing good.

• In four games, RJ Hubert has a forced fumble, a touchdown, an interception, and now a fumble recovery. Good for Hubert, it’s been a long road the last two years with injuries.

• Whittingham keeps noting after games that special teams are not playing a huge role in these games. That’s a good thing.

• Devaughn Vele: Six catches for 63 yards on nine targets. All of those numbers are season-highs, and this makes two games in a row where Vele, who has done well as a punt returner in a post-Covey world, has made an impact. He’s at 14-175-2 for the season, which means he’s on pace for 52-525-6, but remember, Kuithe is out, which could mean more opportunities for Vele.

• Whittingham held out hope that mac linebacker Mohamoud Diabate would return from injury Saturday, but instead missed a second straight game. If Diabate was that close, against Oregon State feels like a safe bet.

Utah’s October: Oregon State, at UCLA, USC, at Washington State (Thursday night off a bye). The Utes’ season begins in earnest against the Beavers.

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