The No. 23 Utah Utes (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12) wrapped up the non-conference portion of their schedule with a 54-16 win over the San Jose State Spartans on Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Utes previously defeated the North Dakota Fighting Hawks 37-16 to open the 2017 season and won at the rival BYU Cougars 19-13 in their second game of the season. The Utes were not really tested in non-conference play, facing off against an FCS team, a Mountain West team, and an independent, all of whom sit at 1-2 or worse on the season. While it is not possible to know how good the Utes are this year, we did learn some about this team.
Utah lacks experience but not talent
This could be the most talented team Utah has had in the Pac-12. Utah also returned the fewest starters of any team in the Pac-12 (and that includes quarterback Troy Williams who is no longer the starter). Just consider this: Utah has a new starting quarterback, running back, four offensive linemen, and their best wide receiver played for Oregon until right before fall camp. All of these players are running a brand new offense from new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. Yes there have been mistakes, but it is almost to be expected with that many new moving parts on the offense. However, the offense is finally explosive. Last season, Utah played an FCS opponent (the Southern Utah University Thunderbirds), BYU at home, and at San Jose State, which is a fairly comparable slate of games to this season. They averaged 431 yards per game (No. 8 in the Pac-12) in non-conference play last year compared to 476 yards per game (No. 6 in the Pac-12) this year. They put up 26 points per game in non-conference play (dead last in the Pac-12) in 2016, compared to 36.7 points per game (No. 8 in the Pac-12) this season. Utah is also taking better care of the football this season. They have only turned the football over six times in non-conference play this year compared to 13 times last year. They are plus-three in the turnover margin this year compared to minus-two last year. The young secondary has performed well also. They are second in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense, which is where they ranked last season with a secondary that put three players into the NFL. The defense leads the nation in yards per carry with 1.66, and they rank second (behind Duke) in rushing yards per game (49.33 rushing yards per game). The Utes rank No. 12 in the nation in total defense (246.0 yards per game) and No. 11 in yards per play at 3.80. The talent is clearly there this season for Utah, they have just made some mistakes due to lack of experience and fewer live reps in fall camp.
The passing attack
We talked in the first point about the talent in general of the team, but I think the success the passing game has had warrants a section all on its own. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley became the first Utah quarterback since Brian Johnson in 2008 to pass for 300 yards in back-to-back games. His 341 yards passing against San Jose State is the most by a Utah quarterback in the Pac-12. Wide receiver Darren Carrington II is tied for the most receiving yards per game in the Pac-12 with 136.3 yards per game. He has topped 100 yards receiving in each game this season and caught a career-high 10 passes in his first game in a Utah uniform against North Dakota. The route structures in this offense are much more complex and have allowed Utah’s receivers to flourish. Gone are the days where every receiver runs a five to 10 yard comeback route. Wide receivers coach Guy Holliday also deserves a lot of credit because it took until the third game of the year for a Utah receiver to drop a pass. As the season progresses, we are likely to see even more of the playbook. Huntley will also become more comfortable in the offense as he gains experience and will likely spread the ball around even more. Behind Carrington, Utah has other talented receivers like Samson Nacua, Demari Simpkins, Raelon Singleton, and Siaosi Wilson. Other names could emerge from the wide receiving corps as well.
The special teams is special
Utah has always taken pride in excellent special teams play, but this year could be their best yet. Senior kicker Matt Gay has made 11 field goals, which is tied for the most in the nation. He hit the second longest field goal in school history when he made a 56 yarder against SJSU. He also became the first kicker in school history to make two 50+ yard field goals in the same game when he accomplished that feature against the Spartans. Reigning Ray Guy Award winning punter Mitch Wishnowsky has been excellent this season. He has upped his level of difficulty punting too. Against SJSU, he staved off disaster by fielding a low snap and punting the football left footed on the run. The punt return game with Boobie Hobbs got going against San Jose State. Hobbs had three punt returns for 95 yards. The only area we have not seen much from yet is the kickoff return team. Playing all three games at altitude in Utah might be the cause for Utah to have the fewest kickoff returns of any team in the Pac-12 with three.
The Utes have a short week to prepare for their conference opener at Arizona on Friday night. Utah has started Pac-12 play 1-0 in each of the last two seasons and will look to extend that streak to three years in a row against the Wildcats. In closing, think about this: since the College Football Playoff began in 2014, the Utes have the best record of any team in the Pac-12 with a record of 31-11 (Stanford is second at 31-12).