Analysis: Utah football’s Tavion Thomas looked like himself — and maybe better — vs. Stanford

Plus: Cam Rising’s second half, the defense is playing at a high level, and more off the Utes’ win on Senior Night

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) and Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9), sing the fight song with the team after lighting the U, as the Ute's defeated the Stanford Cardinals, 42-7, in PAC-12 football action at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

In the immediate aftermath of the University of Utah’s 42-7 demolition of Stanford late Saturday night, the Utes were collectively ready to engage in a longstanding school tradition, lighting the Block U on Mount Van Cott above campus after a win.

It was just a matter of which Ute was going to push the lever down. When Cam Rising was implored to do the honors, it felt appropriate. This wasn’t just another home win under Rising’s direction as quarterback, but likely the last home game with Rising under center. After all, this was Senior Night, and Rising made no secret postgame of his intention to leave after this season ends, whenever it ends.

Tavion Thomas joined Rising in lighting the Block U, another non-senior with football aspirations beyond Rice-Eccles Stadium. There was a finality in watching Rising and Thomas in that moment, but this season is not final. Both players saw to it on Saturday night.

If the Utes are to return to the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 2, every game for the past five weeks has been a must-win. Saturday merely offered the opportunity to play another must-win game this weekend. Yes, the win over Stanford felt like the end in some ways, but no, Rising and Thomas are not saying goodbyes just yet.

If they have their way, goodbye is not coming until Jan. 2 at the Rose Bowl.

Tavion Thomas looked like himself, if not better

In the days leading up to the San Diego State game on Sept. 17, Tavion Thomas’ aunt, who raised him and his siblings, died. He played in that game, went home to Dayton, Ohio, for a couple of days, and returned in time to travel with the Utes to Tempe to play Arizona State on Sept. 24.

What exactly transpired between Thomas going home and Sept. 24 is unclear, but it turned into a mess. He was suspended for the first half at Arizona State, saw a limited role vs. Oregon State, and after 18 carries at UCLA on Oct. 8, things cratered. Eight carries vs. USC were followed by not traveling to Washington State.

If you listen to coach Kyle Whittingham closely, it was clear that while this was a disciplinary issue that wasn’t going to be fixed overnight, he was not going to give up on Thomas. That means not only the football player, but the young person who has had difficulties in his personal life.

Things are coming back around now for Thomas, and Saturday felt like one of those quintessential 2021 efforts as he finished with a career-high 180 yards and two touchdown runs on 22 carries. All of this came not a moment too soon as Utah’s backfield has been and remains decimated by injury. Micah Bernard is out there, but is clearly not 100%, while Whittingham indicated postgame that Jaylon Glover (lower body) and Ja’Quinden Jackson (upper body) are both still banged up. Neither had a carry on Saturday night. Bernard had five for 11 yards, but also caught three passes for 57 yards and a touchdown.

“For a while there, a couple of steps forward, three steps backwards,” Whittingham said. “There were some bumps in the road, but Tavion’s in a good place right now and we’re really grateful that he continued to stick with it and fight through some of the issues that we were having. We didn’t give up on him either. We’re grateful, and it was great to see him go out in his last game at Rice-Eccles on such a positive note.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) celebrates his touchdown, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the Stanford Cardinal at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

The thing that stood out about Thomas is that, while his playing style is generally that of a battering ram, straight ahead with physicality behind a stout offensive line, there were a handful of moments where Thomas looked spry, cutting outside, cutting it back inside for extra yards. He looked in shape despite not having his normal workload for most of the past six weeks, and frankly, it is worth pondering if Thomas is significantly fresher in mid-November than he should be given he hasn’t played a ton.

Either way, Saturday felt like the natural order of things. Thomas getting the bulk of the carries and doing most of the damage. It would be beneficial if Bernard and even Rising could take some of the load off, but Thomas looked capable of shouldering it.

Utah’s offense, whose identity for much of this season has been through the air, is still at its peak level when Thomas is humming along at a good pace.

“It’s been challenging, but you can’t run from it, you have to attack it,” Thomas said. “I have these great guys right here, a great support system, and they got me back slowly, but surely. Right now, I’m ready to just get back with these guys and try to repeat, back-to-back.”

Rising is not healthy, but his second half was excellent.

There is nothing happening across the past two games to indicate that Rising is at 100% with the injured left knee. Whittingham said as much last week after Arizona, and Saturday night was more proof.

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is calling fewer designed keepers after going there 8-10 times per game in some cases. Rising is off on some throws he almost always makes. Overthrows, wide throws, just less accurate than normal. To make this point, he opened the game 3 for 8 for 10 yards in the first quarter as Utah went to the air more than probably anyone paying attention thought vs. a porous Stanford run defense.

All that said, Rising settled in. A second-quarter touchdown in which he rolled to his right and hit Devaughn Vele in the back of the end zone. Back to Vele for 15, Vele again for 28 more. The play calling for most of this thing was vanilla, but no one should be shocked by that. Keep Rising out of trouble, keep him upright, and don’t give away the farm knowing Oregon is up next.

When it was done, Rising was 20 for 33 for 219 yards, three touchdowns and an interception late in the second quarter, just as the Utes appeared ready to put the Cardinal away earlier than they did.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) sings the fight song with the team after the Ute's defeated the Stanford Cardinals, 42-7, in PAC-12 football action at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

Rising is not 100%, the play-calling has changed, but he’s making it happen. His second half, especially, was excellent. Just good decision-making, good awareness, quality throws.

“Just cleaned it up, stopped having some holding and stuff like that,” Rising said. “Any time you set your offense back, it’s going to be rough, but we eliminated mistakes and things started to go our way.”

If Thomas remains engaged and the offensive line keeps playing at a high level, it takes a ton of pressure off Rising. Yes, Rising can put the offense on his back and get to the finish line, as he showed against USC, but if the knee is a wildcard, you would probably not rather lean on him to do everything.

Rising was asked postgame if Saturday was his last home game.

“Yes, I believe so.”

That’s not exactly a firm answer, but there isn’t much belief that he will return for a sixth year in 2023.

The defense is playing at a high level

Utah gave up 500-plus yards of offense to both UCLA and USC, but going back to the second half against the Trojans, a span of roughly 14 quarters, its defense has raised its level of play.

Any concern about Utah’s only true edge rusher, Van Fillinger being out for the season, dissipated on Saturday in the middle of seven sacks, it wasn’t just the defensive line.

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley continues to call timely pressure and blitzes, resulting in Cole Bishop, Mohamoud Diabate, and Lander Barton all getting to the quarterback. Scalley has had to get creative in recent weeks, because for a long stretch, his four-man front was not getting to the quarterback. That has now changed.

Of course, the defensive line was in on the action, and at least one thing is becoming clearer. Redshirt freshman Simote Pepa is showing signs of being the next great Utah defensive tackle. He was everywhere, constantly in the Stanford backfield to the tune of six tackles, including three for a loss and two sacks.

In the end, Utah held Stanford to 177 total yards, which is three fewer than Thomas had rushing.

All of this now leads into an intriguing matchup against Bo Nix, who has arguably been the Pac-12′s best quarterback, and an Oregon offense that is high-octane.

Other things on my mind

• It took until November for Pac-12 chaos, but here we are. Oregon lost to Washington, UCLA lost to Arizona. The Ducks, Utes and USC all have one conference loss, the Bruins are likely out of the championship game mix with two. Saturday is a gigantic day in the Pac-12 with Utah at Oregon and USC at UCLA. The Trojans are the league’s only viable remaining CFP contender.

• Nate Johnson had a 21-yard rush and a 16-yard touchdown pass to Logan Kendall on his first career attempt. Johnson has played in two games; he can play in four and maintain his redshirt. There is an avenue where Johnson plays in all the remaining games and does not redshirt. That possibility feels more real after he played Saturday. It is unclear if Johnson has supplanted Bryson Barnes as QB2.

• Utah hit a fake punt on its opening drive with punter Jack Bouwmeester running for 14 yards. Whittingham said they had three such plays at the ready, but were able to get to one of them.

• Dalton Kincaid returned Saturday, catching four passes for 35 yards. Whittingham noted he was medically cleared, then offered his belief that Kincaid will take a significant step forward before Oregon.

• Utah was 4 for 4 on fourth down and 6 for 12 on third down. All of those fourth-down attempts felt like obvious go situations. On one in particular, on fourth-and-8 from the Stanford 32, Rising hit Vele along the left sideline for 28 after he drew 1-on-1 coverage. Thomas scored from four yards out on the next play.

• Johnny Maea, who started for the second straight game at center in place of the injured Paul Maile, was injured himself in the second quarter. Third-string center Koli Faaiu finished the game and Whittingham was effusive in his praise after what was the first extended action of Faaiu’s career as redshirt freshman. Utah was down to its third center, and nobody flinched. That’s how good offensive line coach Jim Harding has been at his job.

• Of the 17 players honored for Senior Night, Vele’s inclusion felt like a surprise, but not after thinking about it. He is in his fourth year at Utah, and that’s after he took a two-year LDS mission out of high school. There is nothing solid that Vele is leaving, but it shouldn’t shock anyone.

• Zemaiah Vaughn started for the second straight game at cornerback opposite Clark Phillips III. Vaughn appears to have taken that job from JT Broughton, who saw action as a reserve.

• Utah will go into next season having won 14 straight at Rice-Eccles, and 26 of 28 dating back to the start of the 2018 season. Next season’s home opener? Florida, which has not played a true road nonconference game outside the state of Florida since Steve Spurrier trekked to Syracuse early in the 1991 season.

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