This week's press conference from head coach Kyle Whittingham was obviously a much happier one than last week. However, even with a win over the #8 team in the country on the road, there were still plenty of questions that still need to be answered like "Who is the starting quarterback?" and "Will Tevin Carter be able to play?" etc.
"It was good to get the victory on the road down in Pasadena. A hard-fought game, obviously, that went down to the wire. I'm proud of the way our guys played. They hung in there for the full 60 minutes, which is what we needed to do. We knew going in that it was going to be a situation where we had to play well for the full 60 [minutes]. There was no margin for error," said Whittingham.
"There were a lot of great individual performances. Devontae Booker came through again for us with 156 rush yards. Kendal Thompson came on in relief of Travis [Wilson] and took advantage of that opportunity. We didn't really get a lot going in the return game. [UCLA] did a nice job keeping Kaelin Clay to a minimum. Defensively, Nate Orchard was the headliner. He was in the backfield all night long. The front seven in general did a great job. I'm proud of the way they played. Good to get the win and we are now into bye week No. 2 and then Oregon State after that," said Whittingham.
The biggest question is will Kendal Thompson, who led Utah to their first win over a top 10 team on the road since joining the Pac-12, or Travis Wilson, who has started 21 games for Utah at quarterback? The answer is not clear yet, but it should be on Wednesday.
"We have [not] decided [who is going to start]. We're still working through the depth chart, which will probably be released Wednesday. [Kendal Thompson] made a strong case for himself, obviously. It's obviously an important decision and we'll make sure we do everything we should do evaluation-wise and come up with the right answer," said Whittingham.
With two talented quarterbacks who each do different things well, fans may wonder about a two quarterback system. Whittingham was emphatic that would not happen.
"There is zero chance of that right now," said Whittingham. "I haven't changed my stance on that. I guess anything is possible, but that's not in our mindset right now. We're working through all possibilities right now. It's a long season so my guess is that with seven more games it will be very difficult to get through the rest of the season with just one guy. We'll see what happens, but my guess is that we'll need them both."
The decision to put Thompson in during the first quarter was not meant to be a permanent decision. The coaches simply wanted to see if he could provide a spark that offense had been missing since the Michigan game.
"We wanted to give Kendal the opportunity and see what he could do. It wasn't 'Travis, sit down. You're done' and 'Kendal, this is your deal.' We talked about this that the last two weeks we had sputtered on offense and hadn't been real consistent. The plan was going in that if we didn't see some consistency early, we were going to give Kendal a shot. He's earned it in practice. He's a dynamic player and could give us a spark," said Whittingham.
While the passing game did struggle, only gaining 100 yards, the coaching staff does not doubt Thompson's ability to throw the football. When the team rushes for 242 yards, there is not as much need to throw either.
"We're very confident [in his ability to throw ball]," said Whittingham. "He hit that long pass to Dres [Anderson], who made a spectacular catch, but he put the ball in a place where Dres had an opportunity to make the play. He was 10-of-13 Saturday night with two drops so he was actually on the money 12 of 13 times. We have no reservation about Kendal throwing the football well. He's very accurate."
While the injury risk increases when a quarterback runs, so much of Thompson's game is his threat to run, so they do not want to take that away. They just want him to be smarter, not taking unnecessary hits.
"He is a dual-threat guy. That is the way football is evolving. A vast majority of teams are trying to find that guy if they don't have him already. You have to do what you need to do to win the football game. We want to be smart and take as many hits off the quarterback as you can, but if you're a dual-threat quarterback you're going to pull the ball down and run certain portions of the time and have designed quarterback runs dialed for you a certain portion of the time. That's what makes the spread [offense] go," said Whittingham.
Part of the offensive struggles have been due to poor play by the receivers. Utah has dropped roughly 10 passes in the last two games. Trying to minimize dropped pass is difficult because it needs to be addressed but not to the point that it becomes stuck in the heads of the receivers.
"If you dwell on it too much, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and it seems to compound the problem so we're just going to do some extra things in practice. They already work hard in practice, going on the ball machine after as well as the things we have structured in the body of practice. There are some things we're going to try and do to increase the level of focus and concentration on just making the catch. We'll address it, but if you harp on it too much then you start to get even more negative," said Whittingham.
The other big question is the status of free safety Tevin Carter. He has shown he is a playmaker when he is on the field, with two interceptions, one being returned for a touchdown on the season. Getting him back for the Oregon State game will be key to slowing down their passing attack led by quarterback Sean Mannion. Carter's absences were certainly felt against Washington State and UCLA (after he left the game and did not return).
"We hope [to have him back for Oregon State]," said Whittingham. "He's struggled with some things this year. He's an impact player, when he's on the field, he makes his presence known with an interception return for touchdown and another tackle for loss [at UCLA]. He's really an impact player for us and I'm going to be optimistic this week and say that he'll be back in 10 days, but it's not known for sure."
Carter was replaced by true freshman Marcus Williams against Washington State and true freshman Andre Godfrey against UCLA. If Carter cannot go, expect to see Godfrey get the nod. Godfrey looks to me like the next great Utah safety.
"That will most likely be Andre Godfrey. He was available, but wasn't at full strength, back when Marcus Williams played for [Carter]. [Williams] did a nice job, but they're both true freshmen and both have a lot of upside and talent. I'm very pleased with how well [Godfrey and Williams] have played. They stepped in when [Carter] went down and we didn't miss a beat as far as assignments. For a true freshman thrust into that scenario, [Godfrey] did a nice job," said Whittingham.
Offensive guard has been a position where several players have gotten the start. Redshirt freshman Salesi "Leka" Uhatafe made the start at right guard against UCLA.
"He's a guy who we've been very high on ever since he arrived on campus and saw him in the first few practices. He's just a redshirt freshman. He's really matured and started to figure things out. Not that he had any discipline issues early on, but he just started to figure out what it takes to play Division I football from a mental approach and doing things the right way all of the time on the field and in the meeting room, focusing and concentrating. We felt that it was the point in time where he was ready to take that next step and get significant playing time, which he did. He played virtually the entire game [at UCLA] and played very well. He was a big-time plus for us in that game," said Whittingham.
Senior guard Junior Salt did not start, which was not a knock against Salt. He has apparently been banged up, but he is still a team captain and a leader.
"He has a great attitude. He has some things nagging him physically so we're not down on Junior Salt at all. He's a team captain and one of our leaders. He has played a lot of good football for us over the last couple of years. We feel like we have three really good guards right now and a fourth, Nick Nowakowski, who is right behind the other three. It's not to take anything away from Junior, he's still in our plans."
On offense, running back Devontae Booker again had a strong rushing performance, topping 150 yards for the second week in a row. Also, be sure to check out our interview with Booker as well.
"We had a good idea of his capabilities when we watched his junior college tape. He was really a productive, high-level runner in junior college and so when he got here in spring, I liken it to John White. He was here in spring, but didn't make a big splash. We saw the potential. We saw the size. In the last couple of weeks, things have started to click for him. I wasn't surprised. He's doing things that we hoped he was going to do when we recruited him," said Whittingham.
Utah was led to the win by strong play from the defense, especially the front four. The Utes recorded 10 sacks on UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, largely with a four-man rush.
"I really like our front. I've said that for 10 years," said Whittingham. "The defensive front has been a strength of ours and a strong suit for a lot of years. We had great sack production and great sack production to this point up to UCLA game, which was obviously a breakout game for sacks and tackles for loss. I'm not going to say we had one or two of their offensive linemen pegged as weak spots, we just feel good about our defensive line, which is headlined by Nate Orchard. He's the leader of that group, and probably the football team, and they got after it. The majority of those 10 sacks were on a four-man rush. We did bring pressure a certain percentage of the game, but a majority of those sacks came off a four-man rush."
The defense is led by senior defensive end Nate Orchard, who had 4.5 sacks against UCLA, and he currently leads the nation with 8.5 sacks.
"He was phenomenal [at UCLA]. I said during fall camp if we're going to be a good defense, Nate Orchard has to be a force off the edge. He has been just that through five games. We felt coming into the season that he could be one of the best edge players in the Pac-12 and that's been proven so far this season. The two most valuable commodities for a defensive coordinator are an edge pass rusher and a shutdown corner and we feel like we're close to having that situation for us," said Whittingham.
Orchard was not alone in having a great game on defense. Junior linebacker Jared Norris played extremely well, continuing his strong play on the year.
"He's a blue-collar guy. He's not really flashy. He just gets his job done, snap in and snap out. He has instincts and is always around the football. Both he and Gionni [Paul] are the same way. They both have very good instincts and are active, tough. [Norris] is one of the more underrated players in this conference. I think he's one of the best linebackers in the league and doesn't really get the recognition he deserves, but if he keeps playing the way he has, that'll come eventually," said Whittingham.
Getting the win on the road against UCLA was huge for the team, but coaches want to be cautious. Utah had the win last season against #5 Stanford at home but then lost five games in a row following that win. Hopefully, Utah can use this win as a springboard moving forward.
"Time will tell. For certain, it's a big plus for us to get a road win with the team a caliber of UCLA. They're a good football team. They have tons of talent. They're loaded and the Rose Bowl is a great environment. That was a big win for us, but we have to keep going. There's no telling what the future holds, but it gives us confidence and momentum going forward," said Whittingham.
Utah's win was not lost on pollsters, Utah is currently ranked #24 in the AP Poll, the first time they have been ranked since the 2010 season when they were still in the Mountain West Conference.
"I wasn't really surprised [by the ranking]," said Whittingham. "UCLA was highly ranked and when you beat a highly ranked team in the position we were in, I think we received some votes last week, so we were able to crack into the top 25. It's not a big surprise, but I'm proud of our players it's a good way to recognize their efforts and what they've done so far this season. We can't dwell on it, harp on it or get excited about it because there is a lot of football left. It's a nice recognition that we definitely earned to this point."
Hopefully, this win provides a boost in recruiting. Five-star outside linebacker Osa Masina, the top recruit in the state of Utah, was on an official visit to UCLA for the game. Southern California is a hotbed of football talent as well.
"We work our tail off in recruiting all of the time, but the best thing to bolster recruiting is winning. There's no doubt about that. Getting that win in Southern California has been a real hot bed of ours, it's one of the three main areas that we do recruit, was a big plus for us. We were able to get out and see a couple of guys while we were on the trip. Plus, it was on national TV. To get a win on a big stage like that gives a boost to recruiting," said Whittingham.
The Utes get a week off to rest up and get physically and mentally prepared to take on Oregon State in Corvallis on Thursday, Oct. 16th.
"This is a little bit different than our usual bye because we have a Thursday contest, rather than a Saturday contest. That makes you structure the bye week a little bit differently. The down time, rather than coming at the end of the week, comes earlier in the week. [The players] will come in today and watch film and get a good weight room session and then will have a couple days off and get started on Thursday on the field for Oregon State," said Whittingham.
College football has been down right crazy this season, with half of the top 10 teams losing over the weekend and 11 of the top 25 teams, including all four ranked Pac-12 teams.
"It was an interesting weekend overall. Right now, everyone in the North [Division] has a loss and there's only one team in the South [Division] that doesn't. There's only one team in the conference that doesn't have a conference loss. It's interesting to say the least. I'm sure you're going to hear a lot of rumblings about the nine-game [conference] schedule. Pac-12 teams are just beating each other up is what's going on here. Right now, it's wide open. There isn't a clear-cut favorite. I couldn't be more excited to see how it all unfolds," said Whittingham.