The Utah Utes opened the 2017 season with a 37-16 win over the North Dakota Fighting Hawks. There were a lot of new starters for the Utes, including true sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley. While we do not want to read into the game too much since it was the first game against an FCS team, here are five things we learned.
The offense did some good things once they settled in
While the offense did not get off to a great start, throwing an interception on their first drive, they looked good once they got going. Utah scored on six straight drives and on seven of the last eight drives of the game. Stupid penalties (more on this later) hurt the offense at times, but they had a 100 yard rusher with Zack Moss going for 128 yards on only 22 carries. He also had a touchdown. Huntley showed off his dual threat abilities, running for two touchdowns and throwing for another. Huntley though did miss some open receivers and bailed from the pocket a little too quickly at times. Darren Carrington II showed he is the real deal at wide receiver in this offense hauling in a career-high 10 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. The offensive line was hit or miss at times. They opened some nice holes in the running game, but they struggled to protect Huntley at times.
The front seven was dominant against the run
North Dakota is a team that wants to run the football and had an All-American at running back in John Santiago. Utah held the Fighting Hawks to just under 2.0 yards per carry with 28 carries for only 55 yards in the game. Utah only recorded one sack, but they applied pressure that masked some coverage breakdowns in the secondary (more on that later). Their pursuit was impressive, and they rallied around the football well. Having Kylie Fitts back is huge for the Utah defense. He sets the edge well against the run, is a nightmare as a pass rusher, and has great instincts to bat balls at the line. This game showed off the depth of Utah’s defensive line. They were able to rotate in guys to keep everyone fresh and used a lot of younger players like Leki Fotu, Maxs Tupai, Pita Tonga, and JC transfer John Penisini.
There is a lot of talent and speed in the secondary but they are still inexperienced
The secondary showed some flashes of greatness. Sophomore cornerback Julian Blackmon had an interception and nearly had another in the game. True freshman cornerback Jaylon Johnson was challenged early several times but was stout in coverage and made a nice tackle to stop a running play. Marquise Blair destroyed a North Dakota offensive lineman and looked incredibly fast on the field. Missile seems like a good way to describe him. Chase Hansen looked solid as ever at safety. There were busted coverages though, some of which North Dakota did not make Utah pay for. The ceiling for this group is really high, but they are still a young group that can be boom or bust at times.
The young team had too many penalties
Utah had a lot of penalties in the game. Their 135 yards of penalties was higher than in any game last season. There were some dumb penalties and some bad calls, but Utah needs to work on the holding/block in the back penalties by wide receivers on the perimeter. They had multiple runs and returns wiped out because of penalties like that. They are teachable moments, and I think getting more game reps will help the young offense cut down on those. There were also multiple offensive pass interference calls. On defense, they need to learn to pull up better, they had a late hit and a roughing the punter (arguably one of the bad calls), but they need to be more careful and not extend opponents’ drives. I think this team will start to gel more and clean up a lot of the penalties as they play more games and get more in-game experience.
Utah has a kicker
While true freshman Chayden Johnston attempted the first field goal of the game and missed, Utah found their kicker in the game, former UVU soccer player Matt Gay. Gay was perfect on the night, drilling three field goals (including a 49 yarder) and four extra points. Johnston will likely have a bright future, but for the 2017 season, it is Gay who will be Utah’s kicker, taking over for Andy Phillips.