There was a lot of interesting news out of Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham's weekly press conference. As previously mentioned, junior cornerback Dominique Hatfield has been reinstated. Senior tight end Evan Moeai is done for the season with a lower leg injury. Utah moves on from their season opening win to take on in-state rival Utah State on Friday, Sept. 11.
"Good to get the season off to a good start. Rule 1 of an opener is win the game, period. Anything else beyond that is a bonus. It was good to get the victory. It was a hard-fought, physical game. Michigan is a physical football team on both sides of the ball. They play with a physical style and I thought we matched that. Our guys stood toe to toe with them just like we did last year. It was a slugfest and we came out on the right end so we're happy about that.
"On to Utah State. That's where our entire focus is now. They had a tough one against Southern Utah like we did, they got the win and that's all that matters. They weren't their usual selves on offense, they struggled a little bit. [Quarterback] Chuckie [Keeton], who is a phenomenal player, was a little bit off. Their run game was good though. They ran the ball effectively. There were a lot of punts in that game, 29. I've never seen a football game with so many punts, that has to be close to an NCAA record. Anyway, that's where all of our attention lies right now and we're moving forward.
"We lost [senior tight end] Evan Moeai for the season, lower-leg injury, which is disheartening. I feel so bad for him because he worked so hard in rehab from the last injury he had and he hurt himself in the first game of the year again. He does have a great case for a sixth year. He's indicated to me that he wants to pursue that so we will do everything in our power to pursue that sixth year. It should be as close to a slam dunk as you can get and we should have him for next year.
"[Junior cornerback] Dominique Hatfield has been reinstated as well. He'll play as soon as we feel he is ready."
On Hatfield's reinstatement, Whittingham said,
"We felt he served enough of a punishment. It was our belief, in fairness, that he was deserving of being reinstated. In my opinion, he was ready to come back."It is said that teams make their biggest improvement from week one to week two. As Whittingham said, winning the opener is all that matters. It may not always be the cleanest game, but mistakes can be fixed.
"That's the nature of an opener. You are going to make mistakes, both teams made mistakes. As I said going into the game, effort covered up a lot of those mistakes. I thought our team played with great effort and there is certainly a bunch to work on. We have a full slate of things we have to address this week. We're positive we're going to see a whole different Utah State team than the one that showed up on film, at least offensively, in their game Thursday night. They've played us exceptionally well so we are fully aware that we will have our hands full Friday night."
On Travis Wilson, Whittingham said,
"He's been playing with confidence. He has complete grasp of the offense. He's playing with a lot of poise. He's been a great leader for us and, as I said all during fall camp, we were hoping that he picked up where he left off at the end of last season. He did just that on Thursday night. He did an exceptional job. As I said after the game as well, he's no longer just a game manager. He's a guy who can go out and make a bunch of plays for us."
Utah struggled to get the rushing attack going against Michigan in week one. Senior running back Devontae Booker was held to just 69 yards rushing on 22 carries. Utah faces another tough run defense in Utah State this week.
"We have to block better. That's the long and short of it. There weren't a whole lot of missed assignments, we just didn't move people around. Give credit to Michigan, that's a big front seven. They're physical, but nonetheless, we have to create some lanes and space for Devontae [Booker] and all of the running backs. We didn't do that nearly well enough on Thursday night."
Whittingham spoke very highly of Utah State linebackers Kyler Fackrell and Nick Vigil.
"They're both playmakers. Fackrell is an exceptional pass rusher, they move him around. He'll be one of the best pass rushers we see all season long. Vigil is a tough, hard-nosed, instinctive linebacker who plays the game the way it should be played. I'm very impressed with both of those guys."
Utah junior cornerback Justin Thomas being named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after his strong performance including a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown against Michigan.
"It's a great accolade for Justin. As I said after the game, that [55-yard interception return for a touchdown] without question was the play of the game. His ‘pick six' really turned the tide and put us back in control. A lot of times, I think he goes under the radar because he plays our nickel spot. Like a great long snapper, as long you don't screw up, you go unnoticed. He has his guy covered so often that he doesn't get a lot of action at times. It's great to see him get that award. He's just a junior and he has a very bright future ahead of him. He has been playing good football for us for a long time and he has more ahead."
With the news that Hatfield is reinstated, the secondary just got even deeper.
"[Having Hatfield back on the team] is certainly a plus. As you noticed [Thursday night], we were cramping up which was very disappointing. It was mainly in the secondary so we were getting pretty thin back there with a lot of guys going down for cramps. You can never have too many cover corners. A cover corner is the hottest commodity for a defensive coordinator, and most important commodity, along with a dominant edge pass rusher. [Hatfield] is a proven player, but I can't give you a timeline on when he'll be ready. If he's ready this week, he'll play. If he's not ready for three weeks, he'll wait three weeks."
While the defensive line failed to record a sack against Michigan, Whittingham thought they played well overall, especially in run defense.
"I feel good about their overall play, particularly their run defense. When you play a team like Michigan, [the run game] is its bread and butter. That's what they hang their hat on, the power run game. We limited them to 2.5 yards per carry, about 75 yards. If you had told me going in that that would be how we're going to play against the run, I'd take that in a second. We did not get any sacks. We did get a little bit of pressure, but the [Michigan] quarterback did a nice job of getting the ball out of his hands quickly most of the time and sometimes he had way too much time. That's an area of focus. Based on what we've done the last few years, we expect more in the pass rush area than what we got Thursday night."
While Booker did not have a huge game against Michigan, Whittingham is not concerned moving forward about Booker and the running game.
"I wouldn't say [Booker's performance in the run game against Michigan] is concerning, it's unexpected. We expect him to be a 100-yard guy every week. Now he did have 55 receiving yards so he was over 100 yards in total offense, near 120, which is better, but not good enough. We expect him to do a better job. It wasn't because of a lack of touches, he had 29 with carries and receptions combined, but we have to do a better job. Again, I keep going back to giving Michigan credit. That was a very stout run defense so my guess is that they'll be pretty stout against the run all year long."
On preparing for Utah State, Whittingham said,
"We're watching all of the film. They do a great job on offense, they're very creative and go a good job of getting defenses outflanked."
Utah uncharacteristically had issues with cramping in the game against Michigan, especially players in the secondary.
"I wish I knew why [they were cramping up]. We're researching it. We haven't done that for years. It's been years since we cramped up like that in an opener. We do hydration tests. We do everything we possibly can to make sure we're ready to go and we had six guys in all who had to miss either a little bit or extensive time and we can't have that. When you have good players who go out with cramps, that hurts your football team."
Especially as of late, the Utah-Utah State rivalry has featured some great games.
"It's been a heck of a rivalry. It's been very competitive, I can tell you that, especially as of late. Our guys look forward to it. Like I said earlier, we better be at our best if we're going to have a chance to win this football game. Going forward in the future, I'm not sure what the plan is. My guess is that it will stay intact, maybe not every year, but most years I could see it being played, but we'll have to see."
Whittingham praised Utah State's secondary and highlighted the former Utah grad assistant and current Utah State defensive coordinator Kevin Clune.
"They're very sound. Kevin Clune, the defensive coordinator, was a grad assistant here [in 2001-2002] and really has taken a lot of the principles, things we do here and things he studied with him and has been successful at the University of Hawai'i and now Utah State. The thing that really jumps out at you is the soundness of their scheme. Fundamentally and technique-wise, they're very good and they very seldom blow coverages or assignments. They're very disciplined, they play hard and run to the football."
Whittingham was very happy about the national exposure the Utah football program gained national with the victory over Michigan.
"First of all, it was a great venue on Thursday night. I can't say enough about our crowd. That type of environment was incredible and it showed very well on TV from what I understand. It is a great recruiting tool. It's great to get the national exposure. It's one thing to be on national TV and just play so-so, but to play very well and have that kind of crowd, you can't put a value on that in recruiting. It's so important. For our players, everything we have in this program, we've earned. We're solid, blue collar. We don't do a lot of talking. We just play and try to earn respect with what we do on the field. That's our M.O."
The outside receivers, namely Kenneth Scott and Tyrone Smith, did not get as many catches in the Michigan game as Whittingham would like, but there is a plan to help change that.
"We can throw the ball to them more, that'd be a start. We can give them a few more opportunities to catch the ball, which we will. We fully understand that Kenneth Scott is a heck of a receiver and we have to get him more in the action. Tyrone Smith has a big upside. Tim Patrick, we have to get him more involved as he starts feeling better and better health-wise, which he is. That's going to be a key for us. If we want get to the level we hope to, then we can't be as one-dimensional in the throw game as we were."
On senior wide receiver Tim Patrick's status, Whittingham said,
"We were hopeful [that he would play against Michigan], but it just didn't work out. Hopefully, [he'll play] this week. He'll have one week more to heal up."
Check out BlockU's interview with Utah freshman wide receiverBritain Covey
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">.<a href="https://twitter.com/jayFITA51">@jayFITA51</a>, <a href="https://twitter.com/brit_covey2">@brit_covey2</a> and <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TravisWilson?src=hash">#TravisWilson</a> address the media. <a href="http://t.co/su3LOnPGwe">pic.twitter.com/su3LOnPGwe</a></p>— Utah Football (@Utah_Football) <a href="https://twitter.com/Utah_Football/status/640951870081503232">September 7, 2015</a></blockquote>
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