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‘Everything started to click’: How Utah’s offense went from sputtering to explosive

The Utes have scored 96 points in their last two games, and have averaged 38.5 points and 465.8 yards in their last six

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Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising hands the ball off to running back Tavion Thomas.

Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising hands off the running back Tavion Thomas during game at Stanford on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Through the first month of the season, Utah’s offense experienced its share of what were the equivalent of power outages. 

The offensive line couldn’t protect the quarterback or open up holes for the running backs. There were dropped passes. The run game bogged down at times. 

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But these days, the offense has become explosive and it’s been lighting up scoreboards — the Utes have scored 96 points in their last two games. They’ve averaged 38.5 points and 465.8 yards in their last six. 

In last Friday’s 52-7 rout of Stanford, Utah rushed for 441 yards, the fourth-best performance in school history, and finished with 581 yards of total offense. 

“We were firing on all cylinders,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “It was fun to be a part of it.”

Now, Utah’s offensive efficiency is comparable to what it was during its outstanding 2019 season, according to coach Kyle Whittingham.  

“That’s why it was so frustrating early in the year because we knew that we had the pieces and the general building blocks to become a really good offense. We sputtered early in the year,” he said. “But once we got the quarterback position settled and once the O-line started playing like they were capable of, once we got the right personnel groups, and we started to run the football efficiently, everything started to click.”

For wide receiver Solomon Enis, it’s about time the Utes started to reach their potential. 

“I’m glad it’s coming to fruition. We have so many weapons that can be utilized and we are utilizing them,” he said. “We have a great defense to back us up. This is what we’ve been working for all spring, all summer, all fall camp for, just for this moment.

“We’re in a good spot in November right now but we’re trying to get better every day. There’s always something to get better at. We have so many weapons, it’s hard to guard everybody.”

Among Utah’s many weapons are three running backs that eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark against Stanford.

Tavion Thomas ran 20 times for 177 yards and four touchdowns while Micah Bernard had 12 carries for 110 yards and T.J. Pledger gained 107 yards on four attempts.

For the season, Thomas has run for 742 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s scored eight TDs in the last two games. 

While Thomas had issues with ball security early in the season, which cut into his playing time, he’s become one of the Pac-12’s most feared backs. 

Whittingham said he continued to believe in Thomas, even when he was struggling.

“It’s the talent level that we saw. His talent is very apparent. He’s got size, he’s got speed, he’s got quickness. He’s got pretty much everything you look for in a running back,” he said. “It was just a matter early on, of ball security not being where it needed to be.

“We by no means ever considered giving up on him. We knew we needed to continue to bring him along and get him to the point where everyone felt confident in him carrying the football and that he was going to protect it.”

Pledger recorded a school-record 96-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. 

“I love seeing them go,” Rising said of the running backs. “It’s nice to hand the ball to those guys and seeing them run. It’s always a good time.”

“It was amazing,” Pledger said of the running backs’ performance against Stanford. “After the game I looked at the stat sheet and I was just happy. I know how hard we work every week. To see it pay off was a blessing.”

Pledger said the offensive line deserves to be recognized for its improvement.

“Those guys have made a great transition over the season,” Pledger said. “They keep getting better each and every week. I’m proud of all of them. I give them all the credit.”

Rising, who took over as Utah’s starter in the fourth game of the season, has been efficient and he hasn’t been sacked in a month. 

Rising completed 13 of 22 passes for 140 yards against Stanford. Over the past month, he’s picked up a lot of yards on the ground. His ability to extend plays has been a big factor in the success of the offense. 

“The offensive line has been protecting exceptionally well,” Whittingham said. “But when you have a quarterback that has such a pocket presence and has such an awareness of the rush and can move and escape and turn it into a big run. … Most explosive offenses, particularly at the collegiate level, have a quarterback that can extend plays. If you don’t have that, you’re very hamstrung.

“Unless you’re markedly better at the other 10 positions, then it’s going to be difficult. You have to have a quarterback that can extend plays ... He’s probably avoided half a dozen sacks that a guy without his ability would have been sacked.”

The Utes want to continue to produce yards and points in bunches. 

“We’re playing at a high level. The confidence is there at every position,” Pledger said. “Cam is leading the way. But we know we have room to improve and that’s our focus right now.”

Rising said he’s not satisfied, either. 

“It’s a lot of fun but we do understand that the job is not done. We still have things that we need to accomplish.”

“We’re just scratching the surface,” Enis said of the offense’s potential. “You’re not always going to be perfect. There are little things that you can perfect. Those are things we will perfect. We’re just trying to go 1-0 every week and get better.”