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Utah football report card: Utes’ offense gets high mark in win over UCLA

SHARE Utah football report card: Utes’ offense gets high mark in win over UCLA
Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas raises his arm in celebration

Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) celebrates after his touchdown against UCLA at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.

Adam Fondren for the Deseret News

After beating UCLA 44-24 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utah is now two games up on the next closest Pac-12 South contender, Arizona State, with four games left to play.

While the Utes don’t have the South title locked up yet, the win over UCLA, coupled with ASU’s loss to Washington State, puts the Utes in a fantastic position.

Here are the grades from the Utes’ win:

Offense

Utah turned in another great offensive performance, scoring 42 offensive points (the final two came on a safety).

Led by Tavion Thomas, who rushed for 160 yards on 24 carries and scored four touchdowns — tying the Utah program record for most rushing touchdowns in a game — Utah ran all over UCLA, which came in as the best rush defense in the Pac-12, allowing only 95 rushing yards per game.

Thomas hit the hole hard, was a physical runner, and — most importantly — has noticeably wrapped up the ball tightly every time he’s carried it.

TJ Pledger also had a nice game, gaining 61 yards on eight carries, including a 30-yard run. Quarterback Cam Rising continues to show his running ability, finishing as Utah’s second-leading rusher on the night with 63 yards, including a 12-yard rushing touchdown.

All in all, Utah had 290 yards in its best rushing performance of the season.

The offensive line, missing a starter in Keaton Bills, had its best performance of the season. Utah’s starting lineup of Bam Olaseni, Nick Ford, Paul Maile, Sataoa Laumea and Braeden Daniels performed well. There were a few suboptimal snaps from Maile, who started at center, but overall, he turned in a good performance.

Ford, who has started at center in all of Utah’s game this year, moved over to left guard and turned in a good performance, along with Olaseni. Utah’s offensive line was excellent in the run game, and Rising wasn’t sacked once. Overall, a great performance from the unit.

Rising was 17-for-27 for 179 yards, a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown, plus 63 rushing yards. He didn’t have a huge throwing play — his longest pass went for 24 yards — but managed the game well and didn’t make a mistake.

As an indicator to the level of confidence that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has in the offense right now, he elected to have the Utes take the ball first after Utah won the opening coin toss.

Utah’s offense, led by Rising and Thomas, rewarded that faith, scoring touchdowns on not only the first drive but on each of the Utes’ first four possessions.

Utah was 5-for-5 on red zone trips on Saturday, with all five resulting in touchdowns, a vast improvement over the Oregon State game last week.

Thomas was huge in the red zone with three touchdowns. Rising added another on the ground and found Dalton Kincaid for passing touchdown, which came on a well-designed play by Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.

The offense slowed down a little bit in the second half, but overall, it was a very good performance on that side of the ball.

Grade: A-

Defense

Utah’s run defense, which allowed 260 yards and three touchdowns against Oregon State last week, knew it would have to slow down UCLA’s rushing attack — the second-best in the Pac-12, averaging 206 per game coming in.

The Utes’ defense redeemed itself for the most part, holding the Bruins to 146 rushing yards and one touchdown and forcing freshman quarterback Ethan Garbers, who replaced the injured Dorian Thompson-Robinson, to throw more.

Utah held the Bruins to just one touchdown and 10 total points in the first half as the Utes held an 18-point lead at intermission.

Linebackers Nephi Sewell and Karene Reid had another good game, stepping up in the first half for Devin Lloyd, who was out for targeting. Sewell had 14 tackles and an interception and Reid added nine tackles.

Hauati Pututau had a nice game, tipping a pass that floated into Sewell’s hands for the interception in the second quarter, and then Pututau put the finishing touches on the night with a sack of Garbers in the end zone for a safety.

The defense wasn’t perfect though, giving up 411 yards. The Utes also missed multiple tackles on a 30-yard touchdown run by Zach Charbonnet. UCLA went for it on fourth down nine times and converted seven of them.

Overall, though, it was a bounce back performance from the defense.

Grade: B

Special Teams

Special teams continue to be a point of concern for Utah.

Kicker Jordan Noyes missed a 47-yard field goal, his only attempt of the game. Whittingham confirmed after the game the decision to have Cam Rising punt both times had a lot to do with Utah’s punt struggles, particularly against Oregon State when the Utes had two punts blocked (one was called back due to the Beavers having two players wearing the same number on the field).

“You get two punts blocked and you don’t have a lot of confidence, so if you have an opportunity where you can use a quick kick, and Cam was a punter in high school so he has a good background in it, we went with that,” Whittingham said.

Rising did a fantastic job on his two “quick kicks”. Both landed inside the 20-yard line, with one at the UCLA 9-yard line and one at the 6-yard line. The latter punt directly led to the safety at the end of the game.

While Rising’s punting was fun to watch, it’s concerning for the Utes to have to go with him because of the performance of the regular punt team.

Grade: B+