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Utah football report card: Season opener a mixed bag for the Utes

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utes hosted the Weber State Wildcats Thursday night in their 2018 season opener. After what can only be characterized as an awful start — Utah fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter thanks to back-to-back turnovers — the Utes dramatically turned things around, reeling off 41 unanswered points, en route to a 41-10 victory.

Quarterback Tyler Huntley finished the game with 253 yards passing and four touchdowns, as well as an interception, while running back Zack Moss had 150 yards on the ground and a score. The receiving corps had its share of standout performances, namely Siaosi Mariner and Britain Covey, who combined for 136 yards and a touchdown.

Defensively, lineman John Penisini led the way, with a career-high six tackles — including three for a loss — followed by linebacker Chase Hansen (four tackles, two for a loss), defensive end Caleb Repp (five tackles) and strong safety Marquise Blair (three tackles and two pass breakups). The Ute defense limited the Wildcats to just 61 total yards, the lowest total allowed by a Utah defense since 1953 and the third-lowest amount given up in school history. All told, Weber State finished with just 13 yards through the air and 48 on the ground.

Offense

The Utah offense was about as hot and cold as they come. There were moments, like Moss’ 86-yard touchdown run — the fourth longest touchdown run in school history — or Covey’s tantalizing 38-yard ... whatever that was, or Jason Shelley’s 40-yard hookup with Jaylen Dixon, where the Utes looked great offensively.

Then there were moments like Huntley’s first-quarter interception or, unfortunately, anytime Armand Shyne touched the ball, or pick almost any play in the first quarter, during which the offense was anything but good.

Take away the highlight plays, good and bad, and the Utes were mediocre. For every solid offensive play, most of which came courtesy of Moss, Covey or Mariner, there was a dropped or overthrown pass or a stymied run.

“It was a comedy of errors,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We couldn’t get much going on offense.”

The worst part of the offensive showing was turnovers, the Utes had three on offense (four overall.

“The most disappointing thing was the four turnovers,” Whittingham said. “You are not going to win many football games being minus-four in turnover margin. In fact, you’ll win zero Pac-12 games. You saw some of our capabilities tonight, but we were far too inconsistent.”

Grade: C

Defense

Quite simply, the Utes defensive showing was historic. All facets of the defense, each position group, the defensive line, linebackers and the secondary, was absolutely dominant. From the outset, Weber State quarterback Kaden Jenks had nowhere to go with the ball — the Utes zone limited practically any and all opportunities in the air.

On the ground, Treshawn Garrett, a senior running back who has played in all 37 games of his Weber State career, was limited to a measly five total yards on six carries. On both Weber State scoring drives, the Wildcats went a combined 17 yards, only scoring thanks to phenomenal field position.

The Utah defensive line was stout up the middle, and the ends, led by Anae and Repp, harrassed Jenks much of the game.

Both starting linebackers, Chase Hansen and Cody Barton looked great, with Whittingham singling Hansen out in the post-game presser.

“I think you saw what Chase Hansen's comfort level at backer was tonight,” Whittingham said. “He was in his element.”

The secondary, led by Blair and Julian Blackmon, was nearly flawless, holding Weber State All-American speedster Rasheed Shaheed without a reception. Only four Wildcats recorded a catch, the longest a 6-yard grab by David Ames.

If there was a weakness in the defensive showing by the Utes, it was their inability to force a turnover.

“We didn’t take the ball away. That is something we have to do,” Whittingham said. “Over the last three or four years we have been the No. 1 team in the nation in taking the ball away. Tonight, you wouldn’t know that. We didn’t do a good job with that.”

Grade: A

Special Teams

Similar to the offense, special teams was hit or miss much of Thursday night. On the one hand, Matt Gay connected on two field goals, 33- and 35-yarders. Mitch Wishnowsky had two excellent punts downed within the 20-yard line, including a 58 yarder. He also had a fourth-down scamper for a first down in which he completely outran a Weber State defender.

Additionally, Blackmon had a 24-yard kickoff return and Covey managed to haul in three punts without incident.

On the other hand, Gay had his first field goal attempt blocked, Wishnowsky’s first punt was almost a shank — the Australian was visibly disgusted by the kick — and Covey fumbled a punt, a turnover that led to three Weber State points.

There was also the fact that the Utes were unable to open any holes for Covey in the return game, something that irked Whittingham.

“We have to do a better job creating space for him in the punt return game,” said Whittingham. “We were not good in the punt return game. In fact, we were bad.”

All told, special teams were not up to Utah’s normal standards.

Grade: C

Overall

It was the season opener, and as such there were positives and negatives for Utah. The defense was further ahead, but that is understandable (it is a commonly held belief among coaches that defenses come along quicker than offenses. They are more prepared for actual gameplay at the start of the season).

The offense had its moments, showcasing big-play ability that hasn’t always been the forte of the Utes. After a rough start, both the offense and special teams, for the most part, came into their own, players overcoming nerves and rust.

Compared to other recent season openers, the victory over Weber State was a dominant one, the second half hopefully a sign of things to come up on the hill.

As always, there is still work to be done.

“There are things to build on and we have nine days to figure things out,” Whittingham said. “We’ll get better.”

Grade: B-