Utah rolls Weber State 31-7 in QB Nate Johnson’s first start

Thanks to a dominant defense, the No. 12-ranked Utes were never challenged by their FCS opponent, but another up-and-down offensive effort left much to be desired.

Barring some extreme weirdness, the outcome of Saturday’s football game between No. 12-ranked Utah and FCS opponent Weber State never figured to be in question.

It was just a matter of how dominant the Utes would look after opening the season with a couple of inconsistent and (to some) underwhelming victories.

The verdict?

No extreme weirdness transpired, and between some up-and-down offense and an occasionally filthy defensive effort, the Utes came away with a 31-7 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium and a 3-0 record heading into Pac-12 play next week.

“I wouldn’t call it a dominant performance or our best football,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said afterward.

Nate Johnson made his first start at quarterback and accounted for 264 total yards and two touchdowns. Utah also rushed for 231 yards as a team.

Meanwhile, the defense limited Weber State to only 127 yards.

Here’s what stood out from Saturday’s game.

Textbook start

Saturday’s proceedings could not have gotten off to a much better beginning for Utah.

The Utes defense forced a three-and-out on the first drive with two incompletions and a 3-yard rush.

Then, on Utah’s first drive, Johnson wet 3-for-3 for 44 yards, including a 33-yard pass to a wide-open Munir McClain. The Utes also rushed it seven times, including a TD by Johnson on fourth-and-goal from the 1.

As opposed to the first two games of the season, where Johnson and Bryson Barnes would alternate series (and sometimes snaps) as the QB, it was all Johnson on Saturday, at least until the coaches pulled him with 6:38 remaining.

Give them some space

Whittingham said in the lead-up to the game that he wanted Utes to start pushing the ball down the field more, and to get the wide receivers the ball in space to try and make some plays.

That happened twice on Utah’s third scoring drive alone.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Mikey Matthews (81) runs for the Utes, in football action between the Utah Utes and the Weber State Wildcats, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

First, a screen pass to Mikey Matthews on the right side enabled him to circumnavigate the defense and sprint to a 40-yard gain.

Then, on the touchdown, Utah had the ball at the Weber 13, Johnson threw a swing pass to Money Parks in the flat, he spun out of one tackle, then raced up the sideline and beat everyone else to the end zone.

“With Money, he’s one of the fastest receivers, and getting the ball to him — it’s scary seeing him run because he’s really fast, really quick,” said Johnson. “Same with Mikey, as well. Mikey may not be as fast as Money, but he can move.”

Displaying some depth

Utah was a little short-handed in the playmaker department Saturday, as Z-receiver Devaughn Vele and slot Mycah Pittman both sat out.

Enter McClain.

The junior from Atlanta displayed some instant chemistry with Johnson. The quarterback found the USC transfer deep in the first period for a 33-yard gain. In the second, they connected on another bomb, with McClain breaking multiple tackles to ultimately make it a 49-yard play.

He finished with 92 receiving yards on just three catches.

Dominant … but not on the scoreboard

By most of the first-half metrics, the game was a blowout.

Utah outgained Weber 274-100. Johnson had 174 passing yards after completing 10 of 14 passes. The team had 100 rushing yards, including 51 from Ja’Quinden Jackson on only seven attempts.

The Wildcats completed only 5 of 12 passes for 31 yards.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes safety Cole Bishop (8) is held back as he reaches for Weber State Wildcats running back Damon Bankston (1), in football action between the Utah Utes and the Weber State Wildcats, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

And yet, it was just 17-7 at the break.

A few penalties killed one promising drive, leading to a field goal. And a big drive right before the break wound up yielding zero points when the snap on a would-be field-goal attempt was low and bounced to the holder, ruining the try.

Tying a record

The Utes now have a pick-six in 20 consecutive seasons.

Late in the third quarter, Weber quarterback Kylan Weisser dropped back on a run/pass option and threw to a wideout in the flat. Except Utes linebacker Lander Barton read the play and made a great break on the ball, plucking it out of the air at the 23-yard line and going untouched into the end zone.

That wasn’t the Utah defense’s only turnover of the day, either, as left end Logan Fano later forced, then recovered a fumble.

He said the defense is happy with what it accomplished, but hardly satisfied.

“These past three games, we’ve played really well as a defense, but we’ve all had a goal of having a shutout, and we couldn’t get that done today,” said Fano. “So there’s always things we can work on, can improve on.”

A few nitpicks

Weber couldn’t get much going through the air, but did at least one big moment of success on the ground.

In the second quarter, the Wildcats’ Damon Bankston broke through the line, and several out-of-position Utah defenders missed tackles, leading to a 47-yard gain to the Utes’ 6. Two plays later, Weber had the ball in the end zone.

“We’ve shown the past few games we can we can stop the run and stop the throw game, but we’ve still got areas to clean up — some gap responsibility, we miss assignments every once awhile,” said Barton.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah linebacker Lander Barton (20) celebrates the Utes win after lighting the U, in football action between the Utah Utes and the Weber State Wildcats, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

As for what exactly happened on that run play …

“I believe I missed a gap,” Barton said, smiling but chagrined.

Utah’s defense was pretty excellent generally, otherwise, as Weber averaged only 3.2 yards per carry.

Kickoff coverage was also something of a problem, as the Wildcats had four first-half returns go for 118 yards.

“Special teams, we had some issues,” Whittingham said. “Our kickoff coverage unit was horrendous, we’ve got to get that addressed. We botched a field-goal attempt there at the end of the first half. So we definitely have some things to work on.”

As for the offense …

Well, they got those aforementioned chunk plays, and the rush attack was solid, but they once again did not really look particularly explosive.

Johnson remains a work in progress in making his reads — both on passing plays and on read-option run plays. He ran for 71 yards, but wound up throwing for only 193.

“I’ve got to put more points on the board,” he said. “Last year, we were averaging a lot of points per game, so I’ve got to be able to put more points on the board and get those assignments cleaned up.”

Injuries piling up

Whittingham said he’s pleased that the team is undefeated a quarter of the way through the season, but that the team’s health is a concern.

“We’ve got 15 or 16 guys that can really help us win, and they’re not available,” he said. “We’ve got to start getting them back.”

The coach noted that Utah was without its starting tackles, star defensive end Connor O’Toole, and starting cornerback JaTravis Broughton, among others. And, of course, Cam Rising and Brant Kuithe have yet to make an appearance this season.

He added that the Utes lost three more players to injury Saturday, and that at least two of them would be out next Saturday vs. UCLA. He wouldn’t specify who, but McClain was requested for a postgame interview session and not made available, and was subsequently observed heading to the locker room in a walking boot.

“I’ve been coaching 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this in that department,” Whittingham added.

He said he’s hoping to “get a good chunk of those guys that are missing back” this week, then conceded, “But I’ve been hoping that for several weeks now.”