It's hard to call it anything other than ugly, but it's a W, and Kyle Whittingham will take it as Utah plodded their way through an unconvincing 24-0 win over Southern Utah on Thursday night at Rice Eccles Stadium. While there were some bright spots with the offense, there was too much ugly for a team that many consider a Pac 12 title contender in a game against an FCS team.
Defensively, the Utes were good. They weren't great, but they were good, and after a slow start where the Thunderbirds were able to pick up chunks of yardage on the ground, two forced turnovers courtesy of Marcus Williams helped stall out potentially promising drives. The defensive line did their job, getting better all night long and harassing and beating up the SUU quarterbacks. The run game was stuffed up front outside of a few miscues in the first and fourth quarters thanks to Lotulelei, Mokofisi, and Tasini. The linebacking duo of Tauteoli and Barton outplayed expectations tonight after some early mental miscues. Barton was everywhere, but we'll reserve judgement on these guys until they have to drop into coverage and/or tackle a 230 pound back one on one that runs a 4.6. Reggie Porter was tested a few times and didn't play great but Allen, Marcus Williams, and Chase Hansen all had good games with Hansen playing up towards the line of scrimmage for good portions.
Troy Williams had a good debut for the Utes, going 20 of 35 for 272 yards and 2 touchdowns. His ability to throw the deep ball was on display with beautiful passes to Raelon Singleton and Tim Patrick for 52 and 57 yards respectively. Williams' consistency in making the necessary throws to keep the chains moving and putting the ball in spots where only his receivers could get it puts him leaps and bounds ahead of Utah's previous Pac 12 quarterbacks. His escapability was put on display for the first time for both Ute fans and the media as Williams showed he's tough to take down in the backfield. There's still room for improvement, but it's a good first start for the JC transfer.
Welcome back Tim Patrick! 5 catches for over 100 yards and 2 touchdowns is a great step for the senior who missed most of last year with an injury. He looks like the versatile and dynamic receiver Utah has been missing since Dres Anderson went down back in early 2014. 10 other Utes caught passes in the game with Raelon Singleton emerging as a weapon and Troy McCormick throwing in a steady 3 grabs. The wide receiver screens and quick balls out of the backfield continue to be a sore spot for the Utes as they were unable to get any traction. Using Kyle Fulks in a more diverse way instead of having him catch it while stationary is the recipe for more success heading into next week.
We may have a running back controversy heading into week 2 after Joe Williams looked slow and indecisive while putting the ball on the ground for a turnover. That turnover is a big no-no in a Kyle Whittingham offense, especially when you're only putting up 4.1 yards per carry against an FCS team. Troy McCormick was slightly better with 55 yards on 12 carries, but was close to breaking a few and added 56 yards receiving. He looked like the more comfortable and complete back after sitting for much of fall camp. Maybe this is what Whittingham was saving him for. Armand Shyne also had a few productive carries late in the game behind an offensive line that didn't give him an ounce of help.
Now it's time for the line. You're only as good as your offensive line allows you to be, and tonight they were awful. Awful may not even be a strong enough word to describe how bad they were. JJ Dielman couldn't snap it straight all night long, Garrett Bolles was routinely beat by his defender, Sam Tevi had issues on his end (especially in the run game), and Leka Uhatafe severely underperformed. Isaac Asiata was sloppy and confused. Multiple false starts in situations where they shouldn't have happened is going to make Jim Harding furious. The fact that this gigantic line consistently struggled to get any sort of push in the run and game and were being driven back time and time again means that the cohesiveness and ability we saw in camp was either or farce, or SUU's line is really good. I'm thinking it's somewhere in between, but huge strides need to be made before next week against BYU or Troy Williams is going to be under duress and the running game will have a hard time getting anything going unless they can break multiples tackles or make multiple guys miss.
The special teams were mostly on point this evening as Mitch Wishnowsky looks to somehow be Tom Hackett on steroids in setting a Utah single game record for punt average at 55.5 per bomb. Boobie Hobbs was poised to break every single punt return for a touchdown and looks to be very dynamic back there. Hayes Hicken put most of his kickoffs into the end zone and the Utes covered their punts well. Andy Phillips did miss a 36 yarder, but he looks to be struggling with an injury and Utah has other options behind him if he's not healthy.
Utah eventually got things done via big plays on both sides of the ball, a strong defense, and steady special teams. Not exactly shocking, as it's pretty much what we've seen out of Utah football for years. The performance was good enough this week. It won't be going forward.