Utah’s offense aiming to be more prolific against Baylor

The Utes were glad not to turn the ball over vs. Florida, but acknowledge they need more consistency and more big plays going forward — and the slumping Bears may afford them a great opportunity.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Micah Bernard (2) runs the ball defended by Florida Gators cornerback Jalen Kimber (8) as the Utah Utes host the Florida Gators in Salt Lake City on Aug. 31, 2023.

Fill-in quarterbacks Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson earned widespread praise for keeping the Utah offense rolling well enough to knock off Florida in Thursday’s season-opening win.

But pretty much everyone acknowledged postgame that there’s plenty of room for improvement, starting with this Saturday’s game in Waco, Texas, against Baylor.

“We’re gonna need to get better offensively as the season goes on, obviously, if we’re gonna have a chance to accomplish some of our goals,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham.

To be fair, it was a Week 1 performance, and one without injured starting QB Cam Rising at that.

Still …

While the Utes opened with fireworks on their very first offensive play, with Barnes connecting with Money Parks on a 70-yard touchdown, there wasn’t a whole lot of oomph afterward.

Utah finished with just 270 yards of offense for the game — meaning that about 26% of their total yardage came on just one play.

The Utes amassed only 165 passing yards against the Gators, and while their 105 rushing yards looks decent at first glance, it’s less impressive when factoring in that it required 30 carries to get there — an average of just 3.5 yards per run.

“Not a real prolific rushing game,” Whittingham conceded.

Johnson did give the Utes some juice in that area, gaining 45 yards on six carries, including a highlight-reel 27-yard dash through traffic for a touchdown. And Micah Bernard had some nice moments, too, totaling 45 yards on seven carries.

But Ja’Quinden Jackson, the converted quarterback who took over as the primary running back last season and is being counted upon to be the bell cow this year, was largely ineffectual, managing just 15 yards on five attempts.

Still, he said in the lead-up to the game he’s convinced that Utah’s reputation for being a strong running program will unfold that way yet again this season.

“We’ve got some talented guys in there,” said Jackson. “We hold each other accountable, and we just go day by day at getting each other better.”

As for the pass-catchers, there were not many big moments outside of Parks’ opening TD — which proved his only catch of the game.

Many have wondered if this is the group of wideouts who can finally help the Utes unlock a dynamic passing attack. That didn’t exactly manifest itself vs. Florida, however.

Freshman slot Mikey Matthews was arguably the next-most effective, with four receptions for 34 yards. But No. 1 receiver Devaughn Vele had only two catches for 14 yards, while heralded transfer Mycah Pittman totaled nine yards on two catches — and had one significant drop that could have gone for a bunch of yards.

“We’ll find out on tape where we lost our rhythm,” said Barnes. “Definitely stuff to improve on for next week.”

Whittingham said he didn’t think the play-calling got conservative after Utah amassed a comfortable lead on account of a dominant defense, simply noting that the team hit a bit of a lull after a strong start.

He did point to the new running-clock rule having a bit of an impact, though, as the Utes totaled only 53 offensive snaps, while the Gators had just 65.

He was pleased, at least, that the team didn’t have any giveaways.

“The main thing is we didn’t turn the ball over, we didn’t put the defense in any bad situations,” Whittingham said.

Utah’s players and coaches would like for a couple more main things to be better consistency and increased big-play potential.

Saturday’s matchup with the Bears could give them exactly that, even if Rising doesn’t wind up playing despite Whittingham noting that he’d be a full participant in this week’s practices.

Baylor had a disastrous opening game this past Saturday, getting trampled by Sun Belt program Texas State.

The Bobcats totaled 441 yards of offense — 298 passing and 143 rushing — in a 42-31 victory. In one stretch, Texas State scored touchdowns six times in a span of eight drives.

Baylor has now lost five straight games overall, dating back to the end of the 2022 season.

Jackson, a Dallas native, is thrilled to be playing in Texas this weekend.

And he’s thrilled for yet more trips to the Lone Star State down the line, with the Utes set to relocate from the Pac-12 Conference to the Big 12, beginning in 2024.

“Oh, I loved it, I loved it,” Jackson said of the news. “Finally come down south and see what [I’m] talking about. I’m loving that.”

Homecoming trip or no, the rest of the Utes will settle for loving it if they can rack up more yards and points this weekend.