I was pretty impressed with this win - especially after last season. 2009 was filled with should-be blowouts that turned into closer than expected contests. Utah won those games, but I think it signaled the team wasn't at the level needed to contend for the top of the conference. Sure enough, in their two toughest conference games of the season, the Utes lost.
This time, though, they're beating the teams they should beat and they're doing it rather handily. I like that. Even without Jordan Wynn, the offense looks vastly improved over last year's and the defense, which was a big question heading into this season, has exceeded my expectations greatly.
If there is one concern, it's the turnovers. Utah had four fumbles in their win over the Lobos. They lost three. Against New Mexico, that's not going to kill you. Against Air Force or TCU or Notre Dame, you're going to lose. The Utes currently rank 89th in turnover margin. If you look at the list of teams they're close to, there is one big difference - most aren't anywhere near the top-13.
With that said, it's still early and a lot of teams are bunched together because they've only played two or three games. However, this is a stat where the Utes really need to improve because it will cost them a game in the future.
Fortunately, I believe this is a correctable aspect of their game and frankly, with the strides we saw on the special teams play, I have confidence Kyle Whittingham will figure this out.
He'll have to if Utah is going to have a special season.
The grades after the jump...
Offense: B-plus - This was the best offensive performance from the Utes since their win over San Diego State toward the end of the 2008 season. That should be expected because they were going up against one of the worst defenses in the nation. But don't let that fool you, because this game did act as sort of a measuring stick for the offense. Both the Oregon Ducks and Texas Tech Red Raiders (who played at New Mexico) put up a great deal of points. Now Utah didn't dominate like the Ducks, but they still held their own.
Compare that to last year's first road game of the season. The Utes were playing a San Jose St. Spartans team coming off an embarrassing 56-3 loss to SC and they only managed to score 24 points. I think we knew at that point the team wasn't going to be special. That was confirmed a week later when they got beat by Oregon in Eugene.
The feeling today is exactly the opposite, even though the Lobos aren't much worse than that San Jose State team Utah beat on the road two games into the 2009 season.
What's more is that Terrance Cain started that game last year and did so again Saturday in what turned out to be his best performance as a Ute. In fact, statistically, it was the best performance of any quarterback in Utah football history.
Cain went 20 of 23 for 248 yards and three touchdowns. I don't care who your opponent is, those are pretty damn good numbers.
Of course, it's not just about Cain, which is important because this very well could be his last start as a Ute. Beyond just his near-perfect passing, Utah got a different type of production from Matt Asiata. He did have a touchdown, but also five catches for 54 yards. He didn't run the ball like we're used to, but the production on the ground wasn't awful.
The Utes also saw what Tauni Vakapuna can do, as he had 7 rushes for 43 yards and a score. But beyond that, the receivers once again proved their worth. Jereme Brooks had 6 catches for 99 yards and a score, while DeVonte Christopher has 55 yards and a touchdown of his own.
The offense certainly is spreading its production around. They're not running through just one player and I think that's fantastic.
Defense: B-plus - I don't think New Mexico's offense is awful. It's not good, but certainly they have more talent here than the defense. The problem is that the talent is still inexperienced and because of that, you saw a lot of mistakes.
But those mistakes were amplified by how well Utah defended. I was concerned a bit prior to the game because I knew the Lobos were capable of moving the ball. They did manage 433 yards against Texas Tech and I thought the possibility might be there for them to do the same against the Utes periodically throughout the game.
They really never did. New Mexico ended up with 230 yards total and only 69 of that came on the ground.
Not a good performance for the offense.
Credit the Ute defense, though, because they never really allowed the Lobos back into the game. Frankly, I never expected them to, but conditions can change quickly and the defense kept up the heat.
More importantly, though, it was nice to finally see the defense get a big play. Matt Martinez had an interception and returned it 35 yards for the touchdown. We haven't seen that yet this season and it's nice to see the defense finally score off a turnover.
Special Teams: A - It's nice giving the special teams a good grade for once. The first two weeks were abysmal and yet this week was completely different. The Utes didn't have a punt blocked. Utah didn't allow New Mexico to break off a big return on a punt or kickoff and for the second week in a row, Shaky Smithson returned a punt for a touchdown. Did you know the Utes rank 3rd in punt returns this season? Much of that is due to Smithson, who really couldn't have started the 2010 season any worse on fielding punts.
But he certainly has redeemed himself lately and hopefully that can continue into this week and beyond.
- Aaron Roderick: B - I thought the play calling was good. It certainly helps when Cain is playing better than he did last week and even last year. But overall, from what I saw, there was nothing too cute about the offense and they certainly did the job needed for an impressive win. Even when Cain went out and they replaced him with the backup to the backup, Griff Robles, we at least got an idea of what to expect potentially down the line with Robles. He had a nice run that could have maybe gone for a score late in the game, but obviously you're not going to open the play book that late with such a large lead.
- Kalani Sitake: B - Once again I have no complaints about the defensive play calling. Utah is always going to have good defenses and they game-planned well for Tarean Austin - though it probably didn't take much. Outside a couple of plays where the defense was burned, New Mexico really had a difficult time doing anything when they had the ball.
- Kyle Whittingham: B-plus - Whittingham did what he needed to do. His team didn't overlook the Lobos and won big enough to move up a spot in the polls. Do that this week and we'll be golden again.