What we know — and don’t — about No. 20 Utes at the midway mark
There are weaknesses on offense, defense and special teams that the Utes need to address as they head into the second half of the season
At the halfway point of the 2022 season, there’s no doubt that Utah is a very good team.
But greatness — the kind that some were counting on seeing, potentially propelling the No. 20 Utes to the College Football Playoff — is eluding them.
“Apparently, other people are having more problems than we are. But we’re not perfect. We’re not as good as we need to be in two of the six games, there’s no doubt about that.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
The setback to the Bruins hurt the No. 20 Utes’ chances at another Pac-12 title but they still remain in the race.
Utah has a big showdown Saturday (6 p.m. MDT, Fox) at home against No. 7 USC. The Utes also have tough matchups at Washington State on Oct. 27 and at Oregon on Nov. 19.
Currently, Utah ranks No. 14 nationally in scoring offense (40.3 points per game), No. 27 in rushing offense (201.3 yards per game), No. 52 in passing offense (256.3), No. 29 in scoring defense (19.0) and No. 22 in total defense (315.8).
There are weaknesses on offense, defense and special teams that the Utes need to address as they head into the second half of the season.
For instance, Utah’s run defense was suspect, if not bad at times, against the Gators and the No. 11 Bruins, featuring breakdowns and missed tackles. The Utes surrendered 212 rushing yards at UCLA.
“When we have had issues, it’s primarily run defense this season,” said coach Kyle Whittingham, who added that he wants to see the defense get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks with a four-man rush.
“That’s been a concern through the first half of the season,” Whittingham added.
Is the Utes defense improving as the season progresses or is it more about the level of competition?
“We’ve had two bad games and four really good games,” Whittingham said, pointing out that his defense is top two in total defense and scoring defense in the Pac-12.
“Apparently, other people are having more problems than we are. But we’re not perfect. We’re not as good as we need to be in two of the six games, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “We were pretty darn good against Arizona State and Oregon State. I don’t have a reason why the wheels kind of came off for those two games.”
On special teams, Whittingham said kicking touchbacks is “a major emphasis” because the Utes have given up several long runs on kickoffs this season.
“Special teams — kickoff coverage was a negative for us,” Whittingham said. “We gave them good field position far too often (against UCLA), which has been a theme for us. We have to find ways to get that corrected.”
Overall, Whittingham is pleased with the offense, though throughout the season he’s said he would like to see faster starts and improved efficiency in the red zone. And he would like to see more consistent production from running back Tavion Thomas.
The season-ending injury to tight end Brant Kuithe, one of Utah’s most versatile and dynamic playmakers, has certainly impacted the offense.
Here are the midseason awards, highlights and lowlights:
Quarterback Cam Rising.
Rising is No. 23 nationally in passing efficiency (161.32). Rising has completed 118 of 171 passes for 1,440 yards with 13 touchdowns and has thrown three interceptions. He’s rushed 36 times for 248 yards and three TDs.
Cornerback Clark Phillips III
Phillips has a team-high five interceptions, including a pair of pick-sixes this season. He recorded three interceptions against Oregon State.
Unsung player on offense
Redshirt freshman Michael Mokofisi
Mokofisi earned the starting job at right guard and has helped give stability to the offensive line.
Unsung player on defense
Safety R.J. Hubert
Everybody’s known about Hubert’s ability, but this year the senior has stayed healthy and he’s made a bunch of big plays, including a 47-yard fumble recovery return against Florida.
Play of the year
It’s a painful one for the Utes to remember. Rising threw an interception with 17 seconds remaining against Florida. Had Rising managed to throw a touchdown pass instead, Utah might have been a top-five team before the loss to UCLA.
The loss of Kuithe, in the first half at Arizona State, was a big blow to Utah’s offense.
In 51 career games, the 6-foot-2, 219-pound senior from Katy, Texas, had 148 receptions for 1,882 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also rushed 17 times for 162 yards and four TDs during his career.
A three-time All-Pac-12 performer, Kuithe earned second-team all-conference honors in 2019, 2020 and 2021. His 148 catches are the most by a Utah tight end since at least 1996. He ranks eighth overall in school history in receptions.
Most impressive offensive play of the year
In the first half against Oregon State, Rising faked a handoff, sprinted left toward the sideline, stiff-armed a defender, and barreled his way into the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown, giving the Utes a commanding 21-7 lead.
Biggest defensive play of the year
Late in the third quarter against OSU, Utah was leading 28-16 when the Beavers had first-and-goal at the Ute 8-yard line when Hubert picked off a pass and returned it 70 yards.
Most notable in-season position change
Ja’Quinden Jackson went from backup quarterback to running back after Curry’s season-ending injury. Whittingham is hopeful that Jackson will make more of an impact before the season ends.
After the UCLA loss, Whittingham addressed his team’s need to regroup.
“We’re by no means out of contention (for the Pac-12 title). The key now is for us to pick ourselves up and go back to work on Monday, address our deficiencies, and become a better football team next week,” he said. “Because it doesn’t get any easier next week, I can tell you that for certain. We’ve got a good team coming into Rice-Eccles next week. We’ve got to be ready to play our ‘A’ game. We will be. Our guys will bounce back and they’ll play well next week.”
If the Utes can knock off USC, then they’ll put themselves in a position to repeat as Pac-12 champions as they head into the final stretch of the season.
There’s still time for Utah to prove that it can be great.
Utes on the air
No. 7 USC (6-0, 4-0)
at No. 20 Utah (4-2, 2-1)
Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700