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Utah’s offensive line has been an unheralded hero for the Utes this season

SHARE Utah’s offensive line has been an unheralded hero for the Utes this season

Utah offensive lineman Nick Ford (55) is pictured during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Washington, on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019 in Seattle. Utah won 33-28.

Stephen Brashear, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — After a recent game, Kyle Whittingham was asked if he was surprised how well his offense played against what was considered a stout opponent.

“No,” Whittingham said. “We have good players on offense, too.”

Although Zack Moss is breaking school records like they’re plates at a Greek wedding and Tyler Huntley has elevated his play to an elite level, the Utes’ spectacular defensive performance this season has overshadowed that point to some degree.

The Utes do indeed have good players on offense, too — and not just the trending highlight-makers in the spotlight.

While their counterparts on the defensive side have understandably gotten lots of love this season, the offensive line has been as integral a part to Utah’s success as any other player group.

You just usually don’t hear about the offensive big boys up front that often unless they screw up.

The Utes’ O-line is deserving of plenty of credit, considering the way it has cleared space for Moss and protected Huntley, who’s only been sacked eight times and thrown one interception in 191 attempts.

Utah wouldn’t be a leader in time of possession — second nationally and first in the Pac-12 with 35:12 minutes per game — if not for the work the massive men up front have done.

Darrin Paulo. Orlando Umana. Nick Ford. Braeden Daniels. Simi Moala. Alex Locklear. Paul Toala. Johnny Maea. Kyle Lanterman.

These guys are deserving of hearing their names called more often than when the referee occasionally whistles them for holding or false starts. Tight ends Brant Kuithe and Cole Fotheringham have helped in a variety of ways, too.

“Credit to the offensive line,” Whittingham said after Utah’s impressive win over Washington State, which jumpstarted this season’s resurgence.

“Our offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage,” Whitt added after the blowout victory over Cal.

Paulo, the only starting senior on the offensive line, said the concerns about replacing some starters and dealing with a variety of injuries and inconsistent rotations didn’t make him doubt that this unit could accomplish big things.

Depth, he noted, is a strength of this strong but flexible front. Bonus: Highly touted Bam Olaseni made his first career appearance and start against Washington, bolstering the depth even more.

“We haven’t been worried about it. Finally someone else gets to see it,” Paulo said. “I think everyone picks up for everyone well. … I think that we trust each other. Of course last year’s (O-line) and all the other past years, they trusted each other, but I think this year is a little different. We know that we have each others’ backs.”

The senior admitted it helps make his job easier to have guys like Moss and Huntley tearing it up like they have.

“Even when freaking Snoop (Huntley) is banged up, he’s killing it,” Paulo said. “We’re grateful to have those guys in the backfield. Of course it goes to the coordinators as well — Coach Lud’s (offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig) game plan. It’s just been good to have those guys back there, especially with a guy (Moss) who’s setting records every other game.”

While Moss continues to impress almost every time he touches the ball, the school’s all-time-leading rusher and touchdown scorer is not the only one doing impressive things. Consider this telling stat: Of the 10 Ute players who’ve had at least five carries, five are averaging more than 4.8 yards per carry. Three others are above 4.1 ypc. That wouldn’t happen without stellar play in the offensive trench.

The Utes also lead the Pac-12 in rushing with 207.8 yards per game. Arizona is second with 196.0 yards per outing, coming into the weekend.

Paulo didn’t hesitate when asked what statistic the offensive line is most concerned about — after the final score, of course.

“Rushing. We take pride,” he said. “We always talk about who’s the leader in the conference. We like to pride ourselves on running the ball, especially against Cal and Arizona State. Those are good defenses we played against and we did well.”

The Utes have also compiled a bunch of long yard-chewing drives. Through nine games, Utah’s offense has had 24 drives of 70 yards or longer. All but two resulted in a touchdown. It takes a lot of steady blocking for that kind of offensive persistence and control.

Receiver Samson Nacua has so much respect for his offensive lineman teammates that he considers it an honor when they notice his blocking.

“It’s actually fun because when I get a pancake, I’ve got the whole O-block coming over to cheer me on,” Nacua said, joking that he’d volunteer to play tackle. “The O-line doesn’t get a lot of love always, and I just know how it feels when you go and block and you get that pancake – ‘Hell, yeah! I bodied that guy!’ It’s a really good feeling. I love the O-block and I’m glad I get to represent them well.”

Ford explained the Utes’ offensive line basic strategy earlier this season.

“I would say for the most part it was us going through the fundamentals,” Ford said after the Arizona State game. “You could see clearly on the field that they loaded the box and brought as many people as they could to stop Zack and apply pressure on Tyler. As an offensive line, we just did everything we can to bring everyone up and try to make everybody miss.”

More often than not, that combination — fundamentally sound blocking, teamwork, overpowering opponents and adaptability to personnel changes — has allowed Huntley, Moss and other offensive players to flourish while giving the vaunted defense time to rest.