By Steven Herrera
Two special-teams touchdowns and a defensive touchdown on a fumble recovery helped the Utes walk away with a 45-24 win against Fresno State.
You often hear how teams do just enough throughout a game to pull off a victory. Well, in Utah’s case Saturday night against the Bulldogs, they did just enough to dominate the game. It did not look easy at times and there is a lot of room for improvement but the Utes did their job and will go home with a 21 point victory despite all the ingredients for a disaster being present. No Travis Wilson or Hunter Dimick, first road game of the season, back-to-back slugfests in week one and two, and a turnover on the very first play of the game. Throw in an excited crowd in full blackout attire and a motivated Bulldogs team with a bad taste in their mouth from last week and you can see the potential for a disaster. Instead, the Utes weathered the storm and made plays when they needed them the most.
The offense did not have a great night by any means as they barely outpaced Fresno State’s offense by 15 yards. A better way to describe the offense’s performance is efficient. Kendall Thompson led scoring drives of 19, 16, 9, and 12 plays with the last drive ending the Bulldogs comeback hopes. Utah dominated the time-of-possession battle and walked away with 23 first downs. Additionally, the Utes converted on 13 of 19 (68%) third-down attempts and went three for three on fourth down. With that said, it wasn’t pretty at times and it certainly wasn’t easy. Devontae Booker had to fight for the majority of his yards, as the offensive line didn’t dominate the line of scrimmage the way they should have against a Mountain West program. Booker put together his best game of the season statistically despite being met in the backfield by defenders more often than not. Thompson completed 19 of 25 passes but made some bad mental mistakes that led to turnovers and to an underwhelming passing attack. The quick screens to receivers were well covered and seem to have run their course. Utah’s best passing play thus far in the season is throwing it up to Kenneth Scott to draw a pass-interference penalty. However, with Wilson coming back and the playbook opening up all the way, perhaps the throw game will improve.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Utes managed to dominate…until the end of the game. The defense started the game by forcing a 3-and-out after Fresno State was gifted a short field and followed that effort up with a defensive touchdown. The unit played solid football for the majority of the game, holding running back Marteze Walker to under 100 yards rushing and quarterback Chason Virgil to less than 100 yards passing. Then came the fourth quarter and along with it a comfortable Utah lead. The defense proceeded to fall asleep and sloppy play led to 21 fourth quarter points for Fresno State. Soft coverage, no pass rush, missed tackles, and an overall lack of effort and any sense of urgency turned what could have been a rout into a closer game than it needed to be. For whatever reason, the Utah defense loses some aggressiveness at the tail end of games and start playing softer coverage. The lack of pressure on the quarterback is still a problem that needs some attention after this game and who really knows what the solution is. Four man rush attempts aren’t getting to the quarterback and Utah is getting exposed when they bring a blitz. In theory, getting Hunter Dimick back whenever he returns should help but to what degree remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, the corners would certainly benefit from a decent pass rush. There were more instances of receivers getting behind the Utah corners and making a play for their team.
The special-teams unit had its best game of the season so far and seems to have got back on track from last year. Here’s a quick recap: 98-yard kick return touchdown by Butler-Byrd, 77-yard punt return touchdown by Covey, 33-yard field goal from Phillips, forced fumble on kickoff, and 2 punts from Hackett downed inside the 10. If you take away the fumble on the opening kickoff the special-teams unit played a perfect game. Fresno State had a few decent kickoff returns as Phillips had trouble getting the ball into the end zone.
With all things considered, count this game as a good win for the Utes. It wasn’t the rout it could have been and there are many areas the team needs to work on but the Utes found a way to win by 21 points on the road with the 2nd string quarterback.