Analysis: Utah football’s critical October opens with a win, but not without some trouble

The passing attack without Brant Kuithe, a conundrum at running back, Clark Phillips III’s career day, and more

Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) looks downfield in, in PAC 12 football action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon State Beavers, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

An opening-night loss at The Swamp notwithstanding, the University of Utah can still get to where it wants to go.

The Utes can get back to the Pac-12 championship game. They can again have confetti raining down upon them at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. They can return to the Rose Bowl. The loss to Florida surely complicated things, but the College Football Playoff is not off the table.

For Utah to accomplish any of these things, it needs to survive October. A four-game gauntlet of Oregon State, UCLA, USC, and Washington State already felt heavy, but then the Pac-12 went ahead and started looking more balanced, more collectively capable in September.

Saturday afternoon represented one October obstacle down for these Utes, a 42-16 decision over the Beavers. It wasn’t perfect, it was far from clean, but it’s a win.

Surging, unbeaten UCLA now awaits, its own belief that this season can be something special continuing to rise. If Utah wants to keep the aforementioned outcomes in play, this is what it will have to deal with.

The offense’s first effort in a post-Kuithe world

The big storyline last week wasn’t just that Brant Kuithe is lost for the season to a torn right ACL, but what the offense was going to do to recalibrate. Kuithe, an All-Pac-12 tight end, was Utah’s leading pass catcher, not to mention a clear security blanket at times for Cam Rising.

Utah does not have the personnel to merely insert someone in to replace Kuithe. There probably isn’t anyone who is going to catch nine balls, let alone get targeted 10-12 times, but there are a lot of guys capable of playing a role, so piecemealing the passing attack together, sans Kuithe, felt like the likely outcome.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) hugs Utah Utes tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) after Kincaid scored a touchdown, in PAC 12 football action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon State Beavers, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

Saturday was an optimistic start to life without Kuithe. In finishing 19 for 25 for 199 yards and three touchdowns, Cam Rising targeted nine different options, completing passes to eight of them. Coach Kyle Whittingham noted postgame that he thought Rising had thrown for more yards, which is fair, it did feel like Rising threw for more than 199, but that hardly matters.

He took care of the ball, he made good decisions, he ran for 73 yards and a score. Some of that running was on designed keepers, some of it came on scrambles when a play broke down, but all of it was effective.

One particular drive, spanning the first and second quarters, stands out. A five-play, 60-yard drive across 2:07 included Rising to Munir McClain for 12, a 16-yard keeper, Rising to Thomas Yassmin for five, and another keeper, this one 24 yards in which Rising stiff-armed a defender near the line of scrimmage, then took on another defender at around the 5, tiptoeing along the sideline and stretching for the pylon and the touchdown.

Spreading the ball around to a host of guys is good, especially McClain and Yassmin, two tight ends who need to produce something. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig being unafraid to call Rising’s number is also good, but don’t expect to see that a ton. They still need to keep him upright and healthy (more on that below).

The running backs situation needs to get straightened out

Rising was Utah’s leading rusher on Saturday, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but then consider that Jaylen Dixon, a wide receiver, was the second-leading rusher with 22 yards, all of it coming on a reverse for a touchdown late in the third quarter.

The fact Utah was a solid 31-162-2 on the ground Saturday belies the fact that Tavion Thomas, Jaylon Glover, Ja’Quinden Jackson and Micah Bernard combined to run 22 times for 55 yards. None of those four ran more than six times, none of those four finished with more than 19 yards. It’s a significant issue for an offense whose identity forever under Whittingham has been to win the battle in the trenches, run the ball.

I asked Whittingham how concerned he was about his rushing attack, which went for 205 yards at Arizona State, but had to go away from Thomas in the first half when he was suspended.

“Very concerned,” Whittingham said. “We had too many linebacker run-throughs. That was the real key. When you’re coming off of those combination blocks with your front, you have to have your eyes up and see the linebackers triggering, and run through. We weren’t doing a good job of seeing that and consequently, they were getting in the backfield, especially early in the game. We have to do a better job keeping our head and eyes up on the combinations, and coming off those combinations, and pick off the run-throughs.”

That highly technical answer did not address the obvious fact for the second week in a row, there was not a featured back. On Monday, Whittingham noted that the pecking order is Thomas, Glover, Jackson, and Bernard.

Glover got the first rep of the opening series, with Bernard also seeing action. Thomas did not appear until the second series.

Two thoughts: One, if Thomas is healthy, engaged and available, he remains the best every-down option. Two, with Kuithe out and Utah needing pass-catching options, Bernard checks that box better than the rest of the running backs.

Clark Phillips III

I spent a good chunk of the game story on Clark Phillips III and his career-high three interceptions, but it needs to be addressed here as well.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III (1) runs for a touchdown after intercepting a an Oregon State Beavers pass, in PAC 12 football action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon State Beavers, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

• Phillips jumped a route on the first interception. Great awareness. The fact Beavers quarterback Chance Nolan went back to Phillips’ side of the field, telegraphing the pass that led to the first-quarter pick-six made no sense.

• Phillips used the term “formational tendencies” in describing the pick six. I took that to mean, more or less, “they tipped their hand, we knew what was coming.” Morgan Scalley has been at this a while, he knows what he’s doing.

• Had RJ Hubert not picked off Ben Gulbranson in the end zone late in the third quarter, Phillips was behind the play, and may have been able to haul in what would have been at the time his third interception.

• Phillips has looked like one of the 2-3 best cornerbacks in the Pac-12. You already have Oct. 15 circled for USC’s visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium, but make sure it’s circled in marker. Phillips vs. Jordan Addison, last season’s Biletnikoff Award winner.

Other things on my mind

• Solomon Enis did not dress vs. Arizona State. Whittingham was asked if the usual WR2 was injured. He responded by saying Enis was “unavailable.” Stay tuned.

• Getting into this more is on Monday’s to-do list, but Jaylen Dixon scored on the 22-yard reverse, and on a 19-yard pass from Rising to open the scoring in the first quarter. Good for Dixon, because it’s been a long road after he left the team in 2020 to take care of his mental health. Whittingham supported him, he returned in 2021, and now finds himself in a position to help the cause with Kuithe out. He’s a veteran presence, he’s fast, he’s versatile, and Rising has at least some level of trust in him. If Dixon can show some flashes of the player he was in 2018 and 2019, it’s a huge bonus.

• Whittingham said there are designs for Rising to carry the ball “six, eight, 10 times a game,” which does not include scrambling out of the pocket. What those designed runs have to include is Rising sliding, which doesn’t happen enough. He’s willing to take on a defender in the open field, but at some point, that could be really bad for business.

• The third-and-5 play call from the Oregon State 26 late in the second quarter, where Ja’Quinden Jackson lined up in Wildcat and bobbled the snap was brutal. I am a proponent of using Jackson at QB in Wildcat/short-yardage stuff, but that wasn’t the spot for it. To that point, it was Utah’s best drive of the afternoon. Rising was connecting with Devaughn Vele, things were in sync. It just didn’t feel necessary at that moment.

• Vele has turned it up the last two weeks, catching 13 passes for 157 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His production becomes crucial without Kuithe, and potentially without Enis on the other side for an undetermined amount of time.

• Speaking on the ESPN700 pregame show, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said there has been some outreach from ESPN for a possible College GameDay appearance on Oct. 15. That is standard operating procedure a few weeks in advance for sites the network is considering. At this point, the legitimate options for that day appear to be USC-Utah and Penn State-Michigan in Ann Arbor. Alabama-Tennessee is a potential matchup of unbeaten top-10 teams, but GameDay was just in Knoxville on Sept. 24.

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