The TribUte newsletter: Utah football appears willing to go pass-heavy, which would be a departure from the norm

Plus: The end of USC-Utah, steadying things post-Brant Kuithe, and more on Tavion Thomas

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) as the University of Utah hosts USC, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

Kyle Whittingham has voiced some concern with his rushing attack in recent weeks.

On Monday, less than two days after Utes running backs combined for 75 yards on just 20 carries against USC, he was asked again about his concern level.

“Each team has its own identity and in the past, we have been a physical run team, but this group of o-linemen seem to be very good pass protectors,” said Whittingham, whose offenses have generally been viewed as run-first, if not run-heavy operations. “They are doing a nice job protecting the quarterback. Cam (Rising) has an exceptional arm as far as where to go with the ball, his progressions, he makes great decisions and so, this team appears to be a little more leaning on the throw game than teams in the past.”

That last part, leaning more toward the throw game than teams in the past, is interesting.

Saturday was one thing, as Rising attempted a career-high 43 passes while throwing for a career-high 415 yards. It would be quite another thing if Utah keeps doing that down the stretch.

If the Utes start slinging the ball all over the field, which Rising obviously just showed he’s capable of, it would be a pretty radical departure from the norm, not to mention Whittingham stepping outside what helped build his program to the point it is at now.

We can look at any number of Utah seasons under Whittingham to make this point, but let’s focus on the very recent past.

Last season, Utah ran the ball, either by design or on a play where the QB scrambled, on 58% of its total offensive plays. This season, that figure sits at 54.7% through seven games.

On Saturday, the Utes threw the ball on 58.4% of the 76 total plays they ran.

Is something like this tenable over a bigger sample size? Say, the final five regular-season games as Utah tries to get back to the Pac-12 championship game?

I lean towards, you don’t want to put all of that pressure on your quarterback every week. Conversely, we just watched what we just watched vs. USC. Rising generally takes care of the ball, generally makes good decisions, and Whittingham has said time and again that he trusts Rising.

So, why can’t this work? Rising, for what it’s worth, is No. 4 nationally in QBR, and is putting together a better season than he had last season, and last season was excellent.

A midweek trip to Pullman off a bye was already intriguing, but it just got more so if run-heavy Utah abandons that mantra.

Other things on my mind

• A lot of Utah fans are happy to send USC to the Big Ten in 2024 with one final loss at Rice-Eccles Stadium. I understand the sentiment, but losing the Trojans is not good for the Pac-12, nor, frankly, is it good for Utah football. Utah-USC always seemed to have some juice behind, always seemed to have a big buildup, always seemed to matter, both locally and nationally. Utah football is not better off losing that annual contest.

• Saturday marked the third full game without Brant Kuithe. For me, it was the first time I forgot he was out for the season. That’s how dynamic Dalton Kincaid was, that’s how electric Rising was against the Trojans. Whittingham said Monday he likes where the production from other guys are in terms of picking up the slack for Kuithe. Rising reiterated for at least the third time publicly that things are not the same in the passing attack without Kuithe. Both points are valid.

• Last season was widely (universally?) viewed as the best coaching job of Kyle Whittingham’s career. If this Utah team gets back to the Rose Bowl, there is an argument to be made that this one will have been better.

• The current state of Utah’s running backs room, which was legitimately three, maybe four-deep when the season began: Rising is tied for the second-most carries on the team, and has more rushing touchdowns than Tavion Thomas.

• A media friend inside the Pac-12 footprint made an interesting point to me earlier this week: This Thomas situation has gained no traction whatsoever nationally, which seems odd for a top-15 team that won its Power Five conference last season.

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