Kaelin Clay returned Utah to its winning ways in the Utes 56-14 victory over Idaho State. But while the final margin was comfortable over the FCS Bengals, even Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged his team's play was anything but perfect.
"We gave up too much at the line of scrimmage and allowed too many rushing yards," Whittingham said. "We were too soft against the run."
Starting quarterback Travis Wilson threw for 265 yards on 13 of 18 passing with one touchdown to Kenneth Scott. He also scrambled left on a broken play near the goal line and Superman dived into the endzone for a rushing TD.
"It was great," Wilson said. "I feel really blessed to have the opportunity to come back and play. It is great to be back with this team and these coaches. It was a great start to the season, but there are still some things we need to improve."
While his statistics were solid for only a half of play, Wilson did have some negatives. He had a pass knocked down at the line, reminiscent of his troubles through last season, as well as threw at least one ball short of an open Dres Anderson. Number six was double covered, and that same ball probably gets picked against a Pac-12 opponent. Additionally, the speed along Utah's wide receiving corps will be all for naught if the 6-foot-7 quarterback can't throw it over the speedsters, allowing them to make plays in stride. Wilson took no sacks in the game but did have a couple of moments of happy feet.
Kendal Thompson completed 6-of-10 pass for 69 yards, but took two sacks. Thompson also rushed six times for 27 yards, but failed to get into the endzone either through the air or on the ground.
Brandon Cox played in mop-up duty, going 3-for-3 passing for 17 yards. Cox also ran twice for 22 yards, including his 16-yard run for a touchdown. Cox looked confident and could make things interesting in years to come.
The first series was less than inspiring, requiring a punt from deep in the Utes' own territory, but things got going much better afterward. Utah's offense tallied 27 first downs (11 rushing, 16 passing), and 589 total yards.
"It's nice to have Kenneth Scott back and to have Tim Patrick as well," Wilson said. "There are definitely a lot of weapons that will allow us to spread the ball around. We seem to be getting better and all of us are getting on the same page. It is just nice to have everyone healthy."
"We did `out-athlete' them a bunch and were able to make some plays up the field," Whittingham said. "Our offensive tempo was very good and we only put the ball on the ground once."
Utah recorded 351 yards passing in this game. Senior wideout Dres Anderson recorded another 100-yard game (111), but went without a touchdowns for his four catches. Kenneth Scott, returning to action for the first time since an injury at the beginning of the 2013 season, caught four balls for 57 yards and the Utes' only passing touchdown.
The Utes racked up 271 yards rushing for a 5.2 yards per rush average as a team. Individually, Devontae Booker rushed 10 times for just 78 net yards, but his 7.8 yards per carry average and two touchdowns were solid. Starter Bubba Poole ran six times for 42 yards and a seven yards per carry average (and caught two passes for 18 yards).
Utah gave up just one touchdown in each half, including one in the second half when most of the backups were on the field. The Utes also got to Idaho State quarterback Justin Arias four times, 2.5 by senior defensive end Nate Orchard.
Led by Orchard and Hunter Dimick, the Utah ends looked solid, but the interior of the line, usually a strength of the Utes defense, was oddly porous and soft. The Utes' defense allowed 206 yards rushing, 158 yards passing, and Idaho State converted 42.8% of the time on third down. Utah gave up 133 yards rushing and a 5.8 yards per carry average to junior tailback Xavier Finney. Fellow running back Daniel McSurdy carried 11 times for 60 net yards, a 5.5 yards per carry average.
Utah's linebackers and cornerbacks looked as suspect as many feared they might be. Linebackers had difficulty fighting off the initial blocks, and the corners were often either out of position or simply unable to play tight on receivers.
Against a team that threw the ball 40 times, a team that gave up 4 sacks in the game (as well as a number of hurries), Utah managed zero interceptions. The Utes should have come up with at least one if the defensive secondary is as improved as they are supposed to be. What we saw is defensive backs out of position and unable to stay with FCS receivers on routes. That's concerning (and based on the comments on this site, everyone is feeling it).
"We were very average," Orchard said. "We gave away a ton of big plays to the offense, especially in the rushing game. In the end we came out victorious, but we will have to go back and look at the film and see what corrections we can make."
Andy Phillips had a eight kickoffs, all touchbacks, and was perfect on his eight PATs. The former U.S. National Team skier didn't attempt a field goal in this game, and will need to wait another week to test out his improved range.
Punter Tom Hackett had five punts for 238 yards (46.8 yards per punt average), with a 62-yard long, three dropped inside the 20, and one touchback that could have been ruled down at the one. Hackett also executed a fake punt for a 28-yard gain. Punt/kick returner Kaelin Clay scored both a 100-yard kick return touchdown and a 49-yard punt return touchdown.
"We played solid special teams, as you saw with the play of Kaelin Clay tonight," Whittingham said. "He had a great game and gave the team a lot of energy."
Clay announced himself on the national stage with highlights on ESPN Top 10 Plays of the Day. Clearly, he's a dynamic returner in the mold of a Shaky Smithson or Reggie Dunn. Whenever Utah has such a weapon, the team is better. However, it's probably best to temper expectations for the senior until after the Fresno State game. Given the number and type of missed tackles by Idaho State, I doubt either return would go for touchdowns against a Power Five opponent like Michigan or UCLA.
"It felt great," Clay said. "I pride myself on special teams. It's one of those things that usually go unnoticed, but I take a lot of pride in it."
Overall, it's nitpicky to find holes in a 56-14 win, especially where the starting offense and defense play only the first half, but Utah faces the toughest schedule in the country. There aren't any Idaho States (or even UNLVs or New Mexicos) left on the schedule, so the Utes margin for error is much slimmer going forward than it was against the Bengals.
"I am not sure how much more we know about our team after tonight," Whittingham said. "We were well-coached, and we played all 60 minutes. We still have a few things to take a look at that we can get better in."