It became apparent Friday night that the University of Utah will be getting the best of what Dorian Thompson-Robinson has to offer.
Playing against then-No. 15 Washington, UCLA’s oft-injured, enigmatic fifth-year quarterback finished 24 for 33 for 315 yards and three touchdown passes. Thompson-Robinson added 53 yards and a touchdown on the ground as he and the Bruins experienced a breakthrough via a 40-32 win over the Huskies.
Behind Thompson-Robinson, the win catapulted the Bruins (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) from unranked to No. 18 in the latest AP Top 25, making Saturday’s tilt against the 11th-ranked Utes (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) even more attractive.
“You can see him getting better and better, he’s playing his best football right now from my vantage point,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said during his normal Monday morning news conference. “[UCLA coach] Chip [Kelly] has done a great job of developing him and, not that he wasn’t really good before, but he’s really taken his game to another level. He seems to be very poised, makes plays, takes care of the ball, and he’s a dual-threat, which is the biggest issue for us, is his ability to run as well as throw the football.
“That’s always a tough call for your defensive coordinator, and a tough situation for your D when you’ve got a guy that can extend plays like he can.”
Utah has experienced a mixed bag in two games this season vs. mobile, dual-threat quarterbacks.
At Florida, the Utes failed to contain Anthony Richardson, who ran for 106 yards and three touchdowns on just 11 carries in a 29-26 Gators win.
On Sept. 24, the defense was terrific in sacking Emory Jones five times. Jones finished 21 for 36 for 261 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions in a 34-13 Utes win they controlled throughout. Thanks in large part to the five sacks, Jones was credited with 11 carries for minus-26 yards. For the night, Arizona State finished with just 6 rushing yards.
“That does help,” Whittingham said of having previously prepared for Richardson. “They’re similar as far as their style of play. Arizona State’s guy was also pretty athletic, so we’ve faced some athletic quarterbacks this year, but that will be good preparation. A lot of the things we learned in that game, hopefully can apply to this game.”
An update on Tavion Thomas, Micah Bernard
Running back Tavion Thomas has seen a reduced role of late, a byproduct of what Whittingham had previously indicated to be an internal matter.
Thomas was suspended for the first half at Arizona State, but finished with 11 carries for 60 yards anyway. Against Oregon State, he had just six carries for 13 yards on what was a rough day most everyone in the backfield.
Thomas, Micah Bernard, Jaylon Glover, and Ja’Quinden Jackson combined for just 55 rushing yards on 22 carries. Cam Rising led Utah in rushing with 73 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries, while wide receiver Jaylen Dixon’s 22 rushing yards were good second-most.
Thomas, though, could begin to see an expanded role at UCLA if certain parameters continue to be met.
“He’s been on track and barring any setbacks this week, you should see him more and more as the weeks go on,” Whittingham said. “Again, barring setbacks. You have to be consistent, you have to be accountable.”
To a question about Bernard being Utah’s most consistent running back, Whittingham revealed the fourth-year sophomore has “been a little banged up, not 100%”
Still, Bernard has been out there, which has become even more crucial as Utah’s offense continues finding its way without leading receiver Brant Kuithe, who is done for the season with a torn right ACL.
“He’s our best pass protector, catches the ball out of the backfield the best of all the backs,” Whittingham said. “He brings a lot to the table, and we’ll continue to have him play a prominent role in the offense.”
For the season, Bernard is second on the team in both plays (39) and yards from scrimmage (281). Thomas leads Utah in both categories with 316 total yards on 69 touches.
Whittingham weighs in on midseason firings
A second Pac-12 head coach was fired in the middle of a season when Colorado on Sunday decided to move on from Karl Dorrell, who was in the middle of his third season in Boulder.
Dorrell’s firing followed Arizona State moving on from Herm Edwards on Sept. 18, less than one full day after a puzzling home loss to Eastern Michigan.
Whittingham, the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12 and the second-longest tenured head coach at the same school at the FBS level (Kirk Ferentz, Iowa), zeroed in on why schools are more often deciding to make coaching changes in the middle of a season.
“When the signing day got moved up, that was one of the things that could happen,” Whittingham said. “It’s all about recruiting. If you wait until the 11th hour to fire a guy, and you’ve got signing day coming up two or three weeks later, that puts you in a spot.
To Whittingham’s point, National Signing Day was traditionally the first Wednesday in February, but beginning in 2017, the NCAA instituted an early signing period during the third week of December.
Since then, that third week in December has become college football recruiting’s main event. Most of an FBS program’s recruiting class in a given year will now sign National Letters of Intent in December. The first Wednesday in February now kicks off what is called the regular signing period.
“I think that’s really the main impetus for early dismissals. It’s two-fold. No. 1, the recruiting, and No. 2, to start your search right away and maybe beat someone to the punch on a guy that might be available. I don’t think it’s going to change. I don’t think it’s going to go backwards. I think it’s going to continue to be just a callus, cold-blooded deal, but you make enough money where they expect things and you have to produce, that’s just the nature of the beast.”
In speaking to the bottom-line nature of being an FBS head coach, Wisconsin on Sunday fired Paul Chryst. A Madison, Wis., native and former Badgers quarterback in the 1980s, Chryst was 67-26 overall and 43-18 in the Big Ten, but just 15-10 overall and 9-8 vs. the Big Ten since the start of the 2020 season.
Kickoff set Utah-USC showdown
The most anticipated game on Utah’s schedule now has a start time.
No. 6 USC’s Oct. 15 trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium was announced on Monday morning as a 6 p.m. kickoff, with the game set to air on FOX.
That will make consecutive games for the 11th-ranked Utes on FOX as the broadcast giant will air their 1:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday afternoon against No. 18 UCLA from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
USC-Utah was already going to get plenty of attention, but the matchup was amplified in late November 2021 when the Trojans hired Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma. Riley then remade the roster with a slew of commits out of the NCAA Transfer Portal, including his quarterback at Oklahoma, sophomore Heisman Trophy candidate Caleb Williams.
With Saturday’s results pending, the USC-Utah winner will remain in good shape to get to the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 2 in Las Vegas. The Pac-12 has done away with the North and South Divisions this season. Instead, the teams with the two-highest conference winning percentages will play in the championship game.
While Utah plays at UCLA on Saturday, USC has an intriguing contest against Washington State at the L.A. Coliseum. The Cougars’ one loss this season is to Oregon on Sept. 24, in which they led by 12 with 6:44 to go, but yielded three touchdowns over the final 3:48 to lose, 44-41.