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Utah football report card: Utes’ second-half performance is a masterpiece

Utah Utes defensive tackle Hauati Pututau celebrates
Utah Utes defensive tackle Hauati Pututau (41) sacks Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah beat Arizona State 35-21 on Saturday, scoring 28 unanswered points to improve to 3-0 in Pac-12 play

Here are the grades from the Utes’ win:

Offense

Through the first half, Utah’s offense was not producing the way it wanted to. The Utes had scored only seven points — a touchdown on their first drive — and either punted or threw an interception on the following five drives.

Quarterback Cam Rising went 8-for-18 with two interceptions — one on a play in which Cole Fotheringham fell, and then Rising threw another near the end of the half that robbed Utah, which was in field goal range, of points.

Meanwhile, Utah ran for 63 yards in the first half. The Utes couldn’t get much of a rhythm going.

In the second half, it was like a switch flipped. The Utes’ offensive revival was led by Rising, who was nearly perfect in the final two quarters — 13-for-15 for 140 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Rising was accurate and poised and had a couple of impressive throws in which he fit the ball into a tight window.

Utah’s run game also got going, led by Tavion Thomas, who finished the night with 84 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown. The run game really helped the passing game open up for the Utes.

Utah rushed for 145 yards in the second half.

Utah’s offensive line has really come a long way since the start of the season. The unit was really good in pass protection Saturday, and the Sun Devils did not sack Rising once the whole game. The line was also able to create some holes from Thomas to run through in the second half.

Utah’s tight ends were fantastic in the second half. Dalton Kincaid caught four passes for 44 yards, Cole Fotheringham caught four passes for 31 yards and Brant Kuithe caught two touchdown passes.

The Utes were 4-for-5 on third downs in the second half, and on the one third down they didn’t convert, they went for it on 4th and 2 and converted. That fourth-down conversion was huge, as three plays after, Utah had a 28-21 lead. Going 5-for-6 on third and fourth downs to keep drives alive was huge to Utah’s success.

Except a taunting penalty on Britain Covey in which he flexed over an ASU player, Utah had no offensive penalties during the run of play in the second half — no false starts or holding calls.

Overall, Utah scored touchdowns on all four of its second-half drives, playing a perfect offensive game in the second half.

Grade: B+

Defense

Devin Lloyd is mentioned in this section of the report card every week, and for good reason.

He’s been one of the best linebackers in the country and will be one of the first linebackers taken in the 2022 NFL draft.

Against Arizona State, Lloyd and Faybian Marks tied for the team lead with eight tackles (four for loss for Lloyd), and Lloyd also had a pass breakup and two sacks. He was everywhere for Utah, sacking ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels twice on the Sun Devils’ last drive and stopping ASU’s running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage a couple of times.

Utah’s defense allowed 21 points and 288 yards in the first half as Arizona State was able to march down the field during its three touchdown drives. Both the passing and rushing game was working for the Sun Devils, with 157 passing yards and 131 rushing yards.

Utah was able to get off the field three times in the first half, including a forced fumble, but did allow 21 points, so it had much to improve on at halftime.

In the second half, like the offense, the defense went to another level. The Utes held the Sun Devils scoreless on each of their four second-half drives, and Arizona State had just 97 total yards on offense in the second half, including only 17 rushing yards.

Give credit to the defensive line and linebackers in stopping the run and getting pressure on Daniels. Utah sacked Daniels four times and pressured him a lot more in the second half. The Utes also contained Daniels’ running much better in the second half.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

Utah’s reliable starting long snapper Keegan Markgraf was injured in the first half, and freshman JT Greep had to step in. Greep didn’t make any big mistakes in his first game, so that was a positive for the Utes.

Punter Cameron Peasley averaged 39.3 yard on his three punts, an average outing.

Kicker Jordan Noyes was 5-for-5 on extra points. He did not have to attempt a field goal, which is another positive. He has not had to attempt a field goal in his two games as the starting placekicker.

Grade: B

Overall

Utah’s fight in coming back from a 21-7 deficit was impressive. Utah’s offense and defense both stepped up big time in the second half, the third consecutive Pac-12 game in which the Utes have shined in the final two quarters of play.

Next up for the Utes is a trip to Oregon State. The Beavers are 4-2 overall, 2-1 in conference play and 3-0 at home. Jonathan Smith’s team is no slouch, and the Utes will need to put together a better first half than they did on Saturday.

Grade: B+