What worked, what didn’t for Utah vs. Cal

Sione Vaki gave the Utes’ offense a huge spark by carrying the ball 15 times, while the defense helped make things easier by generating a pair of turnovers.

(James Roh | Special to The Tribune) Utah Utes running back Sione Vaki (28) runs the ball for a touchdown against the California Golden Bears during the second half at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, October 14, 2023.

After a mediocre performance in the loss at Oregon State two weeks ago, followed by a bye week, the Utah football team returned to action Saturday needing something to juice the team’s performance.

Safe to say, they got it.

Sione Vaki’s two-way play proved a big spark for the Utes, who rolled to a 34-14 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium at Cal.

It was an encouraging performance if not an altogether spectacular one.

Here are a few of the things that went right and went wrong for Utah in the win over the Bears.

Sione Vaki running back/wildcat

With the passing game ummmmmm … inconsistent, the Utes had to get creative on offense.

As it turns out, a big factor in Utah’s success on that side of the ball Saturday was the inclusion of a defensive player.

(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.

Against Oregon State, Vaki went in as a wildcat QB and ran the ball once. Against Cal, he did much more than that.

Yes, he was a wildcat QB again at times, but he also lined up in the backfield as a traditional running back and took handoffs. And he gave the Utes a spark.

In the first half, he amassed 66 yards on 10 carries — a big factor in the offense having three drives of at least 10 plays.

In the second half, just when it seemed like the Bears were lingering and Utah needed something to put the outcome out of reach, Vaki took another shotgun snap, evaded one defender, then outraced the remaining defenders up the sideline for a 72-yard score.

“Man, I’m humbled — I didn’t think I was that fast!” Vaki joked afterward about the play.

He would finish with 158 yards and two TDs on 15 carries for the game.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham said using Vaki as they much as they did was a simple choice.

“We were getting real thin at running back. … And Sione has a great offensive background — he was a really good offensive player in high school,” said Whittingham. “… So it wasn’t a big learning curve there. And he’s one of the most explosive players on the team.”

It should also be noted that Ja’Quinden Jackson’s return to action was big as well.

(James Roh | Special to The Tribune) Utah Utes running back Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) runs the ball against the California Golden Bears during the first half at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, October 14, 2023.

Banged up for much of the season, he sat out at Oregon State, but returned after the bye vs. Cal, and looked more spry than he has in awhile.

Jackson had 60 rushing yards by halftime, and finished with 94 for the game — part of a 317-yard rushing day for Utah.

“Yeah, I was pissed!” Jackson said about playing with an apparent edge following his lingering injuries. “That’s just basically what it was — I was pissed off.”

Takeaways helping the offense

Whittingham said at the beginning of the week that, excellent as Utah’s defense has been this season, the team was lagging a bit in terms of generating turnovers.

Coming up with a few extra takeaways, he argued, could be huge for a struggling offense, potentially setting them up with a short field and not forcing them to have to drive 70 or 80 yards.

(James Roh | Special to The Tribune) Utah fans cheer during the second half against the California Golden Bears at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, October 14, 2023.

The defenders agreed … and then came through.

A Lander Barton interception in the second quarter gave the Utes the ball at the Cal 48-yard line. From there, Utah’s rushing attack did its thing, and Jackson scored a touchdown from 3 yards out.

In the third quarter, the defense did it again.

Star defensive end Jonah Elliss crunched Bears QB Fernando Mendoza, jarring the ball loose on the strip-sack. Safety Cole Bishop recovered it 13 yards away from the end zone.

It took just three plays for the Utes to score, as quarterback Bryson Barnes ran it in on a 4-yard keeper.

(James Roh | Special to The Tribune) Utah Utes linebacker Karene Reid (21) forces California Golden Bears wide receiver Taj Davis (9) to fumble during the second half at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, October 14, 2023.

Elliss was thrilled to see the Utes generate those takeaways.

“Oh, it’s awesome, man. Especially when the head man is asking for it,” he said. “We know we always need to get those takeaways. … We’ve got to keep doing it every week.”

Whittingham was happy to see the progress, but isn’t satisfied yet.

“We shoot for four,” he said. “If we can get four takeaways — ‘four and a score’ is a mantra that they use on defense — if we do that, I don’t think we’ve ever lost when we’ve got for and a score. So that’s the goal.”

Up-and-down passing

No matter how much subterfuge the Utah coaching staff pours into the quarterback situation (Is Cam Rising healthy? Could Brandon Rose see action?), the Utes don’t seem to be getting any more consistent at moving the ball downfield through the air.

In the first half against Cal, the Utes actually had an impressive 210 yards of offense. But only 51 of them were from passing.

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

Then again, when Barnes came out on the opening drive of the third quarter, he immediately found Devaughn Vele on a 17-yard pass, and a couple plays later, connected with Munir McClain on a 41-yard bomb.

First half — 51 yards. First two passing plays of the third quarter — 58 yards.

After that … not much again.

Barnes did complete 15 of 21 passes in the game, but it only amounted to 128 total passing yards.

Still, considering it was his first game back after being hospitalized for bruised ribs, he did just enough — including making some plays with his legs.

He thinks the Utes might be on the verge of getting the offense in decent shape.

“Like an engine, you need all cylinders firing to get that sucker to go, and I thought we were just firing in certain aspects throughout the whole season,” said Barnes. “Once we finally get all those cylinders together, we’ll get on a roll.”

The Cole Bishop targeting call was not well-received

The Utes were still confused postgame about why safety Cole Bishop was tossed out on a late targeting call.

Vaki, who plays safety alongside Bishop when he’s on defense, gave a very diplomatic answer, but as he did, Jackson was shaking his head.

The running back subsequently voiced his displeasure with the call.

“Most definitely [disagree],” said Jackson. “I don’t believe he hit him with his head. It was a body shot. e threw his body into him. I don’t see what they see [as far as] targeting. I feel like it was a bad call.”

Meanwhile, with Bishop now slated to miss the first half next Saturday at USC, the Utes are working to get the penalty overturned.

“Wow,” Whittingham began, in apparent disgust. “We are appealing it. I think that’s already in motion. … It was a call that … It was interesting. We’ll see what comes of it. … I don’t know if they’ll overturn it. We are taking the steps to at least get some clarification oin it and why it was targeting.”