The Utah Utes dominated the Arizona Wildcats on Friday night in Salt Lake City, Utah. It marked the second dominating win in a row for the Utes and was only the second time in since joining the Pac-12 that Utah scored 40+ points in back-to-back games. We are halfway through the season, so let’s take a look at what we learned.
1. Maybe the offense has turned the corner
The Utah offense struggled against FBS opponents in the first three games of the season, scoring only five touchdowns. They managed less than 355 yards in each game and were held under 5.0 yards per play against their first two Pac-12 opponents. All of that changed against the Stanford Cardinal, when Utah exploded for 40 points (with one defensive touchdown) and 421 yards of total offense. Utah’s 6.58 yards per play against Stanford was the highest total they have surrendered this year (more than to the Oregon Ducks and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, both of which were road games). Utah won decisively on the road against a ranked Pac-12 team, 40-21. All of that was wonderful to see, but I was wondering if they could sustain it. They returned to Rice-Eccles Stadium to face the Arizona Wildcats, who have one of the worst defenses in the conference. Utah was a double-digit favorite coming off a big win, these are the types of games where Utah has stumbled in the past. Instead, Utah scored touchdowns on four of their first five drives in the first half to take a 28-0 lead into halftime. Utah called off the dogs after they were up 35-0 in the second half, had they not done that, they likely could have put up 50+ on Arizona. Utah’s 7.28 yards per play was again the highest total given up by Arizona this year. Now obviously Arizona’s defense is not very good, but it was refreshing to see Utah score 40+ points in back-to-back Pac-12 games for only the second time (the other was in 2012 when Utah scored 49 in back-to-back games against the California Golden Bears and the Washington State Cougars). It is more than just the success they have had that gives me some confidence about the offense moving forward. Players were fighting hard for extra yards, they were making the catches that they could not earlier in the season, the offensive line has been a wall the last two weeks, and they just look confident. While I want to see Utah sustain this offensive success against a few more good defenses (like the USC Trojans who come to town Saturday), Utah finally looks like the team we saw in fall camp and that is refreshing.
2. The defense is elite
Ok so I think we all already knew this, we did not learn it this week. But, (and caveat that it is a different coaching staff) how many times has Arizona gashed a good Utah defense? This is the first time that Utah held Arizona under 400 yards of total offense in the Pac-12. It is the first time that Utah held them under 5.0 yards per play in the Pac-12. Further, Utah kept them way below both numbers (318 yards and 4.13 yards per play), and Utah’s defense held Arizona to their lowest point and yardage total and yards per play of any team this season. Utah beat Arizona in 2015 and 2016 and still gave up at least 445 yards and 5.33 yards per play in those wins. What really impressed Shane and I on Friday night was the speed of this defense. Arizona has some speedy weapons on the outside. In years past, if a player would break a tackle against Utah, they would run for 5+ yards where on Friday, they would gain a yard or two then get hit by three Utah defenders. This year’s defense just looks different from years past.
3. Credit the coaches
In each of the last two weeks, the Utah coaching staff has designed a fabulous game plan on both sides of the ball, and they went for the kill. On Utah’s first drive of the second half, Utah broke out some trickery and scored a 58-yard touchdown on a pass from Britain Covey to Tyler Huntley. That is just not something we are accustomed to seeing from Utah. In years past, Utah would not be that aggressive with a 28-point lead. Credit the coaches for being aggressive and going for the kill. We saw the same thing against Stanford with the Utah team putting Stanford away after Stanford closed the lead to 27-21. In each of the last two games, Utah has won decisively and both the coaches and players deserve a lot of praise for that.