Wildcat offense sparks Utah to rout of Cal

Utah 34, Cal 14 • With Sione Vaki dominating on the ground, and the defense forcing a couple big turnovers, the Utes rebound with a win.

(James Roh | Special to The Tribune) Utah Utes running back Sione Vaki attempts a rush during the first half of a football game against the Cal Golden Bears at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, October 14, 2023. Utah won 34 to 14.

An offensive scheme that was en vogue about a decade and a half ago proved just what the struggling Utah football team needed Saturday.

With safety Sione Vaki dominating running the ball from wildcat formations, and the defense coming up with some timely turnovers, the Utes knocked off Cal 34-14 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

It was a nice rebound game for Utah, which was coming off its first loss of the season two weeks ago at Oregon State.

Utah is now 5-1 on the season and 2-1 in Pac-12 play.

Vaki rushed for 158 yards on 15 carries to spark an attack that still can’t generate much firepower through the air.

Meanwhile, an interception by linebacker Landon Barton and a strip-sack from defensive end Jonah Elliss proved huge, setting up the Utes offense with a short field on both occasions.

Each ensuing drive resulted in a touchdown.

Utah’s offense finished with 445 yards for the game — 317 of which came on the ground.

Ja’Quinden Jackson added 94 rushing yards.

Bryson Barnes threw for 128 yards in his return to action, while adding 50 on the ground, as well as a rushing TD.

The biggest test of the season to this point is up next, as the Utes head to Los Angeles to face USC.

Sione Vaki’s huge day makes it 31-14

Sione Vaki, running back is apparently long overdue.

Just when it was looking like the Utes could use an extended drive to run the clock, the safety instead uncorked an explosive play that didn’t use up much time, but which extended the lead.

Taking another snap as a wildcat quarterback, he evaded one tackle, sprinted to the left sideline, then outraced every Cal defender to the end zone.

His 72-yard touchdown made it 31-14 Utah.

It also gave him 158 rushing yards for the game.

Utes lead 24-14 at end of third quarter

The Bears aren’t giving up.

After the Utes went up 24-7, Cal responded with a drive that kept this a game.

They went 65 yards in six plays, needing just 1:37 of game time to reach the end zone, as Fernando Mendoza connected with Taj Davis on a beautiful 24-yard strike over the middle.

(James Roh | Special to The Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) runs for a touchdown against California Golden Bears during the second half at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, October 14, 2023. Utah won, 34 to 14.

Big passes, another turnover set up two scores; Utes lead up to 24-7

Bryson Barnes had 51 passing yards in the first half.

He had 58 on his first two completions of the third quarter.

A 17-yard completion to Devaughn Vele got things going, and a 41-yard bomb to Munir McClain got them in prime position.

However, a series of conservative play calls thereafter — culminated by a third-down run up the middle that everyone saw coming — resulted in a 23-yard field goal that made it 17-7.

On Cal’s next series, Utah star DE Jonah Elliss came up huge again, knocking the ball loose on a strip-sack that safety Cole Bishop recovered on the Cal 13.

A few plays later, Barnes took it into the end zone untouched on a 4-yard keeper. The ensuing extra point made it 24-7 with 9:11 left in the third quarter.

Wildcat Sione Vaki puts Utes up 14-7 at halftime

Utah has been searching for something — anything — to get the offense going.

Safety Sione Vaki as a running back/wildcat QB seems to be doing the trick.

With Vaki alternating running the ball with RB Ja’Quinden Jackson, the Utes’ offense has managed three drives of 10-plus yards in the first half against Cal.

The last of them covered 89 yards in 15 plays, and culminated with Vaki scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run just before halftime. The Utes now lead 14-7.

Even with Bryson Barnes back at QB (Nate Johnson did not see the field in the first half), Utah is still having minimal success passing the ball, as they managed only 51 yards through the air in the first half.

However, they ran for 159, including 66 by Vaki on 10 carries.

Jackson added 60 yards on 13 carries.

Barton INT sets up Utes’ game-tying drive

In the lead-up to Saturday’s game, several Utah coaches and players said they wanted the Utes’ defense to start generating more turnovers to better set up the offense.

Done and done.

Linebacker Landon Barton picked off a second-quarter pass, giving Utah the ball at Cal’s 48-yard line.

And while the Utes still aren’t having much success throwing the ball, their running has been strong.

With safety Sione Vaki splitting carries with running back Ja’Quinden Jackson, Utah methodically moved down the short field. Thanks to one key scramble by quarterback Bryson Barnes, followed by a third-down conversion on a short connection between Barnes and Mikey Matthews, the Utes were able to keep things rolling.

Jackson ended the drive with a 3-yard TD run and Cole Becker’s extra point tied the game with 7:56 left in the second quarter.

Utah only has 20 passing yards, but has amassed 107 rushing yards on 18 carries.

Cal goes up 7-0 as Utes miss FG

Utah’s offense hasn’t done much.

And the defense can’t be expected to pitch a shutout.

The Utes’ penchant for allowing a few too many chunk plays hurt them against Cal, as Fernando Mendoza hit running back Jadyn Ott for a 48-yard touchdown pass.

Utah responded by driving down the field, primarily on the running of Ja’Quinden Jackson and Sion Vaki, stalled at the 156-yard line.

Cole Becker’s 33-yard field goal attempt then missed, keeping Utah scoreless.

Rising and Kuithe are out, O’Toole and Jackson are in

Some pregame availability notes for Saturday’s Utah football game against Cal:

• Quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe were not dressed for pregame warmups. The three QBs taking pregame snaps were Bryson Barnes, Nate Johnson, and Luke Bottari. Brandon Rose — who the coaching staff is hoping to redshirt at this point — was not dressed.

• Defensive end Connor O’Toole is dressed and appears poised to make his season debut. The coaching staff had originally intended to play him vs. Oregon State, but backed off. He’ll start opposite Jonah Elliss, who comes in second in the FBS with 7.5 sacks.

• Running back Ja’Quinden Jackson, who has been banged up most of the season and didn’t play at Oregon State, was dressed and going through warmups. It appears he’ll play, but we’ll see how close to 100% he is.

• ESPN 700 — the team’s flagship radio station — reported pregame that wide receiver Mycah Pittman has been ruled out for the rest of the season. The Oregon/Florida State transfer had been expected to bring some juice to the WR room this season, but never got going.