One must ask:
- How good is Fresno State's offense after struggling to score for two consecutive weeks against Pac-12 defenses?
- How good is Fresno State's defense after giving up a load of points and yards in consecutive Pac-12 road games?
- How good of a benchmark is Fresno State when trying to gauge the future success of the Utes?
That's why they play the game my friend.
Travis Wilson is back and looking better than ever. His ability to make quick decisions on read-options and passing plays proved to be more that Fresno State's defense could handle. In one half of work (plus a drive in the second) Wilson went 11-20 for 181 yards and a personal best 5 TD passes. Of his nine incompletions, half were throw aways and none were drops by the receivers. His touchdown passes to Dres and Scott were right on the money and even though Wilson's throwing style and motion tend to be all over the place, his accuracy has certainly improved. Wilson's touchdown pass over Anderson’s shoulder was absolutely gorgeous and shows Wilson's maturity and understanding of the game. While Kendal Thompson is doing some special things during his time on the field, there is no question who the number one quarterback on this team is.
Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott are looking like elite level receivers. Both have great hands, run precise routes, and have plenty of speed to get open and gain yards after the catch (YAC). Scott had 6 receptions for 77 yards and 2 touchdowns and played arguably his best game as a Ute. Scott had his signature jump ball TD where his vertical, great hands, and body control give him a huge advantage over the defender. But more impressive was his ability to turn a ten yard completion into a 36 yard touchdown on a nice catch-and-run. If that's now part of his arsenal, Pac-12 defenses had better watch out. Dres Anderson has certainly earned the reputation of being one of the best receivers in the conference. He is a big play guy and the deep ball threat the Utes have been desperate for since joining the Pac-12. His offseason work on his hands and concentration on the ball is really paying off (so far).
The line improved from what we saw against Idaho State with better protection for Wilson in the pocket, but they've got a long way to go. Fresno brought wave after wave of pressure both up the middle and on the egdes in an attempt to rattle Wilson and perhaps generate turnovers. From a run block point of view, there were holes for Wilson, Booker, Poole ,and Kendal Thompson to pick up large chucks of yards. Run blocking is more natural for this group of lineman with pass blocking being their biggest deficiency. Poutasi is without question Utah’s best lineman, and this group certainly performed better with Aiono getting the start at center. Harding is making progress with this group, but they’ve got to get better as they begin to face better defensive fronts starting with Michigan.
Overall, the offense was hitting on all cylinders against Fresno State rushing for 258 yards (4.8 average) and passing for 268 (17.9 yards per completion). It’s hard to fault that sort of production and efficiency, especially in a “trap game”.
Kalane Sitake delivered a great game plan that frustrated Fresno State's offense to the point that they never really got off the ground against Utah's starting defense. Utah's three and four lineman sets completely dominated the Bulldogs and kept their QB run game in the backfield. Utah's defense produced a total of eight three-and-out drives for FSU with five in a row to start the game. They set the tone early and atoned for a soft performance against Idaho State.
Former walk-on Clint Shepard was the best interior lineman on Saturday and had the most consistency of the group. Sese Ianu isn’t making the impact needed from a starting defensive tackle and had moments in the game where he was driven backwards by Fresno linemen. Utah’s got to have more production out of the group and it’s up to guys like Fauonuku, Ianu, Mokofisi, Tu’ikolovatu and Lotulelei to move from adequate to good and maybe even to great.
Nate Orchard proved to be a Trevor Reilly type weapon as he moved all over the defense ranging from a down lineman to an outside backer to a middle linebacker who spied on the quarterback keeping the Fresno QB rushing attack at bay. He was your defensive MVP on Saturday and showed a new level of versatility not seen so far in his career at Utah. Orchard and Hunter Dimick are really complementing each other as they work to control the edges.
The linebackers were asked to do less in this game and had better production as a result. Whittingham has had two relatively quiet games so far to open the season and only added a solo tackle and two assists to his season total on Saturday. One might wonder if he's completely healthy with the production we've seen so far compared to what he did a year ago.
Justin Thomas was an absolute shutdown corner with several batted balls against Fresno's best receivers. He and Dominique Hatfield had such strong performances,that Fresno turned its attention towards Eric Rowe and exploited him with several big plays and several pass interference calls as the game wore on. While Rowe continues to be one of Utah's best tacklers, his transition to corner still needs a lot of work. It’s pretty simple for Rowe right now - he has to get better and get better fast.
A big disappointment has to be the continued drought from the secondary when it comes to interceptions. Safeties Brian Blechen and Tevin Carter haven't really been in a position to even make a pass deflection or an interception. Carter looks comfortable as a run stopper and is one of the teams top tacklers, but in pass coverage he looks a bit lost at times. The same can be said for Blechen at times. Morgan Scalley needs to get these two on the same page as the Utes begin facing bigger, faster, and stiffer competition for the remainder of the schedule.