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Where Can Utah Improve to Claim the PAC-12 South?

NCAA Football: Washington at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

With the bye week winding down and preparations for Washington State around the corner, the Utes have some tightening up to do if they hope to claim the PAC-12 South title for the first time. The offense in general has failed to live up to pre-season expectations, and special teams have been a surprising point of concern early on. Even the defense, which has been the undisputed strong-point for the Utes has room to improve. Thankfully, there is plenty of time for Utah to get back on track.

​It’s no secret that Utah has struggled to score points this season. In fact, in the last two games, Utah’s offense has found the end zone twice. Now that conference play has begun, relying on the defense to hold while the offense scrapes by won’t cut it. Ideally, the Utes can help remedy this problem by ramping up the run game.

​Zach Moss has been nothing short of reliable once again in 2018, accumulating 283 yards on 45 carries and three touchdowns. With 6.3 yards per carry average, he has been one of the few consistent bright spots on the offense early on. Behind Moss, Armand Shyne has been even more limited, with only five touches on the season, however he has made the best of his limited time, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, with his best action coming against Washington, when he broke free for 14 total yards on two carries while Moss was being treated on the sideline. With two capable running backs to rely on, the offensive plan should be more run dominant moving forward.

​Through the air, quarterback Tyler Huntley has been a bit of a mixed bag. While he has thrown for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns, his completion rate is down to 59.6%, and has thrown two interceptions thus far. To Huntley’s credit, there have been multiple incomplete passes that can be attributed to dropped balls from the receivers and the offensive line took some time to gel, showing some improvement in week three. The biggest critique against Huntley comes down to his decision making. More than once, the team captain has failed to find open receivers downfield, instead holding onto the ball for a delayed run or passing into coverage. If the coaching staff decides to limit the run-pass-option plays and allows Huntley to focus on making his reads, it’s possible the passing game could improve enough to be a consistent threat against rival defenses, while also allowing Moss to fully control the ground game.

​Most concerning for the Utes is their highly touted receiving core. While fan favorite, Britain Covey has had no problem picking up where he left after returning from an LDS mission earlier this year, the gap between him and his colleagues downfield is staggering. Covey currently leads the team in receptions (23) and receiving yards (262). Samson Nacua is a distant second in receptions with seven, while Jaylen Dixon has accumulated 90 yards on his three catches. If Utah hopes to topple divisional foes down the road, another receiver is going to have to step-up to take the pressure off Covey.

​Defensively, it’s hard to fault Morgan Scalley’s squad for much of anything. Linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton have been dominant, each accruing 27 total tackles. CorrionBallard and Julian Blackmon have been impressive with their pass defense, limiting big plays. Even after allowing Washington to score 21 points, the Utes still lead the nation in total defense, allowing only 614 total yards. The biggest thing the defense can do to improve is continue forcing turnovers. Chase Hansen sealed the win against NIU with a pick six, while Pita Tonga juggled an interception down the sidelines against Washington, while Ballard has forced two fumbles, but when the offense is failing to produce, capitalizing on turnovers is going to be even more important.

​With the PAC-12 South failing to impress early on, Utah is still very much in contention to claim the division. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the best team in the South finishes with two or even three conference losses, so an uninspiring effort against Washington is far from a season-ending affair. A few adjustments and Utah could very well be the team heading to Santa Clara in November.