Utah vs. Cal football: Thoughts on the Utes’ matchup with the Bears

Kyle Whittingham wants more run production as the Utes return to Rice-Eccles Stadium.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) tries to get out of the arms of UCLA Bruins defensive back Kenny Churchwell III (23), in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the UCLA Bruins, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

Cam Rising and his surgically repaired knee naturally have dominated the discourse around the Utah football team for the past week-plus.

And while his availability is indeed the single biggest factor hanging over the team right now, it’s far from the only one.

When the Utes take on Cal this Saturday at 1 p.m. at Rice-Eccles Stadium, there are myriad other components that will play a role in the team’s ability to improve to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in Pac-12 play, heading into a murderers row portion of the conference schedule wherein they’ll face three top-10 opponents in a four-week span.

How to watch Utah vs. Cal

Kickoff: Saturday, 1 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700 AM/92.1 FM

Weather: Mostly sunny, high of 70

Here are some of the odds and ends Utah personnel discussed in the lead-up to facing the Bears.

Getting the ground game going

• A huge factor in Utah’s offensive struggles has been, of course, the inadequacy of the passing attack.

But head coach Kyle Whittingham said the team’s rushing has been underwhelming, too.

“Not at all. Not even close,” he replied when asked if it has been as good as he wants. “That’s one of the disappointments. Last week we’re without Ja’Quinden [Jackson] and Charlie [Vincent]; Micah [Bernard], of course, has been gone. So it’s been Jaylon Glover, and he’s given us good effort, but … 5 yards a carry is kind of the benchmark of what we’re looking for, and we’re not getting that, not even close. And so that is a big issue for us right now and a point of concern.”

• Compounding the problem is that the Utes lost yet another body from the running backs room this week.

“Chris Curry is out for the year. He sustained an injury [Monday],” said Whittingham. “… It’s been really tough getting guys back. It seems like when you get someone back, you almost immediately lose someone else.”

• Much as Whittingham wants to see the RBs break out, he also figures that, beyond the injury situation, their production is down because that aforementioned passing inadequacy is making their job exceedingly difficult.

(Amanda Loman | AP) Utah running back Jaylon Glover carries against Oregon State during the second half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Corvallis, Ore.

“If you’ve got an offense where nobody respects the throw game, they’re going to put everyone in the box, and it’s real hard to run the football,” he conceded. “… Right now, our throw game is way off.”

Blocking needs bolstering, too

• Whittingham has said multiple times this season that he feels like the offensive line needs to get more physical.

This week, he was even more blunt about the job they’ve been doing.

“We’ve been pretty mediocre with [pass] protection,” he said.

• The phrase is usually “adding insult to injury,” but perhaps in this case, “adding injury to insult” is more appropriate.

That mediocre pass protection is possibly unlikely to see dramatic improvement this week given the team’s ongoing health woes. Asked if Jaren Kump — originally slated to be a backup guard, but thrust into the starting center job by an injury to Johnny Maea — would now be the “permanent” center even upon Maea’s return, Whittingham said that as good as Kump has been, circumstances simply don’t permit that at this point.

“Not permanent. We get did get some guys banged up in the last game, O-line-wise, and so we may have to shuffle the deck again this week,” he said.

• It’s not just the front five who need to do a better job blocking, apparently.

Tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham said his group has strides to make in that regard, too, adding that their failings there have directly impacted the woeful offense.

“First of all, we’ve got to be great in run-blocking, because if we can successfully run the ball, that opens play-action pass and the throw game and everything else,” he said. “So it all starts with the run. We’ve got to have great footwork, pad level, technique, effort, and finish.”

Sticking together

• Kyle Whittingham has, on multiple occasions, brought up the need for the Utes to continue to support one another, for defensive players to not start pointing fingers at their offensive counterparts amid their struggles.

The message seems to have gotten through, given several people on the defensive side of the ball saying this week they can do more to put the offense in better positions.

Utah’s head coach is pleased with the unity the team has displayed under trying circumstances.

“I think they’ve done a nice job of handling adversity — we’ve had some tough spots through the season, and they seem to have a great attitude and great mentality towards that,” he said. “They stuck together very well. We know we’ve played [worse] on O than we have on D so far, but there’s been absolutely no finger-pointing or any of that type of thing. They’ve done a nice job of staying unified.”

Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele (17) catches a pass against UCLA defensive lineman Grayson Murphy (12) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

• Wide receiver Devaughn Vele also addressed the subject, and did so in very poignant fashion, noting that the significant real-life traumas the team has endured in recent years has made dealing with some injuries and a stagnant offense relatively easy.

“I feel like if [there hadn’t been] the whole situation with Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan and the adversity that we faced like that, I feel like we wouldn’t handle this as well as we are right now,” said Vele. “I don’t feel like guys are necessarily turning against each other. It’s more so we expect better play out of everybody. That’s what we expect as a team. And so everybody’s pushing everybody, especially on the offensive side. We’ve had extra meetings on the side as a unit, just talking about the things that we have to do. We can’t expect the defense to bail us out every single time.”

Random musings

• Freddie Whittingham may be an offensive coach, but he knows a stellar defensive performance when he sees one.

In the breakneck world of college football, Sept. 23 is practically an eternity ago, but the Utes’ stellar Pac-12 opener (the Bruins managed only 243 yards, were sacked seven times, and turned it over twice, including a pick-six) is sticking with him.

“That game against UCLA was a couple games ago, but that was like a work of art. That was a masterpiece,” he said.

• After linebackers coach Colton Swan was praising Karene Reid and Lander Barton for being great “hybrid” players (which is to say, quality both against the run and dropping back in pass coverage), he was asked if this year’s group was the most versatile bunch he’s had.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) and Utah linebacker Lander Barton (20), celebrate a quarterback sack, in the final Bruin drive in the 4th quarter, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the UCLA Bruins, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

“That’s a good question. I’ve had some really good, versatile [players]. If Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell and Mohamoud Diabate aren’t listening to this, sure! Yeah, absolutely the most! But if those guys are listening, they’re all good, they’re all pretty versatile,” Swan said, laughing. “I do love where we’re at from a [versatility] standpoint — the guys can do so much, and that’s what we look for. We look for guys that are athletic, have good foot fire, change of direction, tackles, make plays in the passing game, make plays in the run game, TFLs. It’s just awesome to see those guys produce the way they do.”

• Vele knows that every part of the offense is under scrutiny right now. One component of that has been fill-in quarterback Nate Johnson’s struggles with accuracy.

Still, the wide receiver believes he and his cohorts can do more to help the redshirt freshman out.

“Obviously, we understand the situation we’re in. But as receivers, we’ve got to make the quarterback confident in his play. So that means making the catches that are harder to catch,” said Vele. “Not every ball is gonna be perfect — it doesn’t mean we can’t catch it. Especially with a young quarterback, I feel like we can do better as receivers catching those hard balls that aren’t right at our chest.”

• Brant Kuithe’s injury status hasn’t gotten the attention that Rising’s has, but it’s been an intriguing subplot.

Still, Utah’s tight ends have accounted for the team’s past two touchdowns, with Thomas Yassmin getting the Utes’ only score vs. Oregon State, and Landen King hauling one in against UCLA.

While the sophomore King has been the subject of a decent amount of intrigue (despite having just two catches for 16 yards this season), Freddie Whittingham noted that the 6-foot-5, 225-pounder has a ways to go to be a complete player.

“Landen is a very good receiving tight end right now. In his development, what I would like to see more of is him putting on bulk and getting up to the weight of a true tight end,” the assistant said. “He’s got to take that upon himself to make sure that he is adding weight every single week to get to that level where we can line him up at the line of scrimmage against a 270-pound defensive end and feel good about it.”

• Colorado coach Deion Sanders is decidedly not a fan of the so-called “Pac-12 After Dark,” blasting the conference’s penchant for late kickoffs: “Who makes these 8 o’clock games? Dumbest thing ever. Stupidest thing ever invented in life,” Sanders said Wednesday about his team’s Friday night matchup vs. Stanford.

His Utah counterpart, meanwhile, was grateful that’s not the case for his team this week vs. Cal.

“One o’clock kick — another positive,” said Kyle Whittingham. “We seem to have lucked out this year with the afternoon or the early afternoon kicks or even morning kicks. So that’s been a nice pleasant change for us.”