Utah's ground game is no longer grounded.
After rushing for just 18 yards in a season-opening loss to Oregon State and following it up with only 73 yards in a setback to Air Force, the Utes finally got things going against UCLA. That's when junior Darrell Mack made the most of his first career start. He ran for 107 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries as the Utes blasted the Bruins, 44-6.
Mack earned Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors for his breakthrough performance. He also solidified himself as Utah's starting tailback.
"He earned it," head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He earned that job through his production."
Mack, who was pulled out of a planned redshirt year when Matt Asiata suffered a broken leg in the opener, beat out a pool of candidates that included 2006 rushing leader Darryl Poston and camp standout Ray Stowers.
Since the UCLA game, Mack netted 89 yards against UNLV and a career-best 132 yards in last weekend's 34-18 victory over Utah State.
"Darrell has certainly stepped forward the last three weeks and has done a nice job carrying the bulk of the load in the run game," Whittingham said. "He had his best performance Saturday. If we can keep getting the production out of him that we've gotten the last three weeks, then the running game certainly is getting close to where we need it to be."
Mack has averaged more than four yards per attempt in 66 carries as a starter. In Utah's two wins this season, Mack paced a ground game that has mirrored the success. The Utes have averaged 133 yards per game in their victories and just 65.3 yards in the setbacks.
"Now we need some non-tailback yardage — be it from other places: the fly sweep, the quarterback run game and so forth," Whittingham said. "We've got to have some supplemental run game in addition to what Darrell has given us."
Entering Friday night's ESPN tilt at Louisville, Mack has accounted for 353 of Utah's 462 rushing yards this season.
"That segment appears, at this point and time, to be getting the production we need," Whittingham said. "Every week's a different week and challenge, but for three straight weeks now Darrell has been solid in the run game."
Mack is filling a role that Asiata, a junior college All- American, was projected to fill.
"When Matt went down that changed everything," explained Whittingham, who noted that the running backs have essentially traded places.
The early decision to redshirt Mack wasn't based on an inability to compete with the others. Far from it, in fact.
"Any time you redshirt a player that's a positive," Whittingham said. "Because you're telling him 'Hey, we want you around for another year.' By no means is that a slap in the face."
Plans changed following Asiata's injury, however, and Mack was receptive to getting back in the mix.
"It was good news. I wanted to help my team. I knew I had the ability to help these guys," Mack said. " ... When they decided not to redshirt me I was happy that now I can play and show what I can do."
Whittingham said when Mack was told he wouldn't redshirt this season, no promises were made. He would simply by given the opportunity to become the guy.
"I feel comfortable," Mack said. "The coaches having confidence in me helps me build my confidence. I feel I can always be an example for my teammates — let them know I'm ready and they can feed off my energy and stuff."
The junior acknowledges, however, that there's always room for improvement. Utah's ground game, he added, is still a work in progress — continual improvement is evident.
"Right now it's all going the positive way," Mack said. It's getting better all the time."
Mack was a first-team all-stater at Monte Vista High in Spring Valley, Calif. He rushed for 4,078 yards during his junior and senior seasons.
In his first two years at Utah, Mack ran for 320 yards and one touchdown, He appeared in 17 games and carried the ball 82 times.
EXTRA POINTS: Safety Robert Johnson, who injured his shoulder in the UNLV game, practiced once again. He's wearing a brace, however, that prevents him from utilizing full range of his right arm ... The Utes are taking snaps with crowd noise blaring over speakers to help prepare for Friday's game in Louisville ... The moving truck carrying Utah's equipment to Kentucky leaves today.
Utah's ground game
Opponent ... Rushing leader
Oregon State (L, 24-7) ... Matt Asiata, 16 yards
Air Force (L, 20-12) ... Darryl Poston, 37 yards
UCLA (W, 44-6) ... Darrell Mack, 107 yards
UNLV (L, 27-0) ... Mack, 89 yards
Utah State (W 34-18) ... Mack, 132 yards
On the air
Utah (2-3, 0-2) at Louisville (3-2, 0-1)
Friday, 6 p.m.
Papa John's Stadium