Before the season kicked off, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, and plenty of other observers, expected the Utes to field a dynamic offense and a traditionally stingy defense.
There’s a reason why Utah was ranked No. 24 in the preseason Associated Press poll.
Halfway through the regular season, the Utes are approaching that level, with room for improvement.
But there was a stretch when it appeared it might be a long season.
Utah dropped two straight nonconference games to BYU and San Diego State and it saw starting quarterback Charlie Brewer leave the program.
But Utah has looked like a much different team the past two weeks — more like the type of team Whittingham was expecting from the outset.
On Oct. 9, the Utes crushed USC, 42-26, marking their first-ever win at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and their first victory over the Trojans in L.A. since 1916.
Then, last Saturday, Utah rallied from a 21-7 halftime deficit to defeat previously ranked Arizona State, 35-21.
The Utes have won three straight games heading into their showdown at Oregon State Saturday (5:30 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network). They dropped out of the rankings in September but they are receiving votes in this week’s AP poll.
“This is what we had in mind and what we had envisioned,” Whittingham said. “It just took us a little bit to get there, a few more games than we would like to get there.”
Utah (4-2, 3-0) stands alone in first place in the Pac-12 South and it’s the only team in the league without a conference loss.
Here’s a look at the Utes’ offense, defense and special teams and how they’ve fared at the midway point of the 2021 season.
Through the first four games of the season, Utah’s offense looked out of sync and, at times, dreadful.
But the Utes’ remarkable turnaround starts with quarterback Cam Rising, who replaced Brewer as the starter.
In his last two starts, Rising has been one of the main catalysts and he’s been able to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers.
Against USC, he completed 22 of 28 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns.
After completing only 8 of 18 passes for 107 yards and two interceptions in the first half against Arizona State, Rising completed 13 of 15 passes for 140 yards in the second half.
Rising’s ability to stretch the field with his arm and make plays with his legs have caused problems for opposing defenses. It’s made all the difference.
And don’t overlook Rising’s leadership abilities.
“He is an alpha dog. He is a leader in every sense of the word. He does command the room. He’s the leader of the offense,” Whittingham said. “He is exactly what you want in a quarterback when you talk about the ‘it’ factor and a field general that you want leading the troops.”
Meanwhile, the offensive line has made big strides in pass protection and opening up holes for the run game. Utah’s offensive line did not give up a sack against ASU.
“They’ve definitely kicked it up a notch and they’re doing some really good things,” Rising said of the O-line. “It allowed me to have a lot of comfort out there and also run the ball downhill. They can move guys up front, each and every down.”
“It allows you to do a lot of stuff,” Whittingham said of the tight ends group. “As a former defensive coordinator, that’s the toughest group to defend. There’s so many different ways you can utilize them. When you’ve got tight ends that can block and catch, that’s a great combination and a great matchup problem for defenses.”
As far as the ground attack goes, Utah has had several running backs step up here and there as the position has been staffed by committee.
But Tavion Thomas has emerged as the Utes’ top running back after fumbling against Weber State and BYU, which limited his playing time. Thomas has 57 carries for 331 yards and four touchdowns this season. He ran for 113 yards against USC, including a 43-yard TD.
As a team, Utah averaged 372.3 yards of total offense over its first three games and 430.3 over its last three games.
In the last three games, 10 of Utah’s 13 scoring drives have been 65 or more yards.
“Offensively, we’re just starting to hit our stride. We sputtered in our first few games,” Whittingham said. “But the last two, we’ve started to figure out who we are, who we’ve got to get the ball to and how we’ve got to get them the ball. Tavion Thomas is starting to emerge as a run threat, which gives us more in the run game.”
Like the offense, the defense started slow this season but has improved in recent weeks.
Over the first three games, Utah surrendered 161.7 yards rushing per game. Over the last three, it has limited opponents to 103.3 yards per game.
Utah ranks first in the Pac-12 and No. 18 nationally in tackles-for-loss (7.0) and sacks (3.0) per game.
Ten of Utah’s 13 sacks this season have come against Pac-12 foes Washington State, USC and Arizona State.
“Defensively, I think we’ve been fairly consistent throughout the course of the season,” Whittingham said. “Certainly we had some problems with our run defense early on but we’ve seemed to shore that up. I think overall, we’re trending in the right direction as a football team.”
Against ASU, Lloyd recorded eight tackles, including four TFL and a career-high three sacks and a pass breakup. Lloyd ranks No. 2 in the Pac-12 and No. 6 in the country in tackles per game (10.2). The preseason All-America selection has at least eight tackles in every game and he’s recorded 10.5 TFL in Utah’s last four games.
“He plays within the structure and framework of the defense. But we utilize him in a lot of different ways. You saw us bring him off the edge quite a bit so far this season,” Whittingham said of Lloyd. “He’s got great size. He runs like a deer. He’s instinctive, he’s got a long wingspan and you see him tip balls quite often, particularly in pass rush.
“He’s a playmaker. He’s a guy that when there’s a play to be made, he almost always makes it. He’s an absolute football junkie and student of the game. He watches as much film during the course of a week as anybody we’ve ever had here.”
Tafua leads the Pac-12 in sacks with 4.5 this season. But even when he doesn’t get the sack, Tafua’s pressure as an edge rusher opens up sack opportunities for his teammates.
“The most valuable commodities for a defensive coordinator are edge rushers and shut-down corners,” Whittingham said. “(Tafua is) a premier edge rusher. Though he didn’t have a sack, he’s able to flush out the quarterback and let other guys clean up and get the sack. Right now, Mika’s leading the Pac-12 in sacks, so he’s doing a good job.”
The Utes’ defensive secondary is getting better each week and playing more man coverage. Cornerback Clark Phillips III and safeties Brandon McKinney and Vonte Davis anchor the secondary.
During the season, some unheralded players have made a big impact. Linebacker Karene Reid recorded 15 tackles, a sack and an interception against Washington State, while safety Kamo’i Latu turned in a career-best 10 tackles and a pass breakup against USC.
Special teams: C+
Early in the season opener against Weber State, Utah uncharacteristically gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Then it happened a couple of weeks later against San Diego State.
“We shouldn’t have two kickoff returns for touchdowns in 15 years, let alone two in three weeks,” Whittingham said at the time. “That’s unacceptable. Needless to say, we have to figure that out.”
The Utes have figured it out but there has been another issue — placekicking.
It helps that the Utes’ offense is finishing drives with touchdowns and don’t need to attempt field goals.
Senior long-snapper Keegan Markgraf suffered “a big blow,” said Whittingham, because he sustained a season-ending injury against Arizona State. He’ll be replaced by freshman J.T. Greep.
“J.T. backed (Markgraf) up and he did a great job,” Whittingham said. “We expect him to continue to do that. He’s a very talented young snapper.”
On the bright side, Covey became the school’s all-time leader in punt return yardage against Washington State.
Covey has 902 career punt return yards, surpassing the mark held by LaVon Edwards, who recorded 892 career punt return yards.
“Britain Covey is a weapon for us. We know what he can do in the punt return game,” Whittingham said. “That’s no secret, that’s no surprise. That’s what he’s been doing his whole career here.”
Earlier this season, Covey amassed 132 punt return yards, including an 80-yard touchdown, against San Diego State.
“Special teams-wise, there haven’t been a lot of huge impact plays,” Whittingham said. “We did have the big punt return and we’ve given up some things in kickoff return. I think we’re holding our own in special teams.”