Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham, a man not given to overstatement, once told reporters that Dalton Kincaid was “the best-kept secret in the Pac-12. I’ve been saying that in camp and in several interviews.”

Kincaid is not a secret anymore, not in the Pac-12 or anywhere else. Kincaid, who wasn’t even considered the best tight end on his own team, had ESPN announcers gushing about him and calling him perhaps the best tight end in the nation during Saturday night’s nationally televised USC-Utah showdown.

If receivers had an efficiency rating similar to that used to evaluate quarterbacks, Kincaid would have posted a perfect score. Rising threw 16 passes to Kincaid; Kincaid caught 16 passes.

The Trojans, one of the most talented teams in the country, simply could not stop Kincaid while he did his best Rob Gronkowski impersonation. He played a huge part in handing the previously unbeaten, No. 7-ranked Trojans their first loss of the season, 43-42.

They simply could not cover Kincaid. He caught 16 passes for 234 yards and one touchdown. Every time the Utes needed a big play, quarterback Cam Rising went to Kincaid. Eleven of Kincaid’s 16 catches went for first downs and another went for a touchdown. Six of his last seven catches came on third down. All but one of his 10 second-half catches resulted in a first down or a touchdown. He had four catches on the final, game-winning drive.

If receivers had an efficiency rating similar to that used to evaluate quarterbacks, Kincaid would have posted a perfect score. Rising threw 16 passes to Kincaid; Kincaid caught 16 passes.

These were Rising’s stats when he was throwing to Kincaid: 16 attempts, 16 completions, 234 yards, 1 TD; these were Rising’s stats when he threw to the other receivers: 14 of 28 for 181 yards and 1 TD. Kincaid caught more than half of the quarterback’s completions and passing yards.

In more than a century of football, only one Utah receiver has had more receiving yards in a single game, and he was a wide receiver — Carl Harry collected 255 yards in 1988 in a game against lowly Idaho State. Only one Utah receiver has ever caught more passes in a single game — Loren Richey caught 17 in 1986 in a game against another poor team, UTEP.

Kincaid’s star turn came against the storied USC program on national TV.

Even when everyone in the stadium knew the ball was coming to Kincaid, the Trojans couldn’t cover him. With the Utes facing second down at the 4-yard line in the third quarter, one of the Fox broadcasters asked his sidekick what he would do on the upcoming play. He said he’d look for Kincaid. Kincaid caught a touchdown pass.

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During one stretch late in the second quarter, Kincaid caught passes on three consecutive plays, for 15, 9 and 30 yards, respectively. The Trojans couldn’t do anything about it.

Go figure. USC’s football program attracts more than its share of blue-chip recruits each year. They’re fast, they’re athletic, they’re accomplished. To make matters more daunting for opponents, Lincoln Riley brought several top players with him when he traded the head coaching job at Oklahoma for the head coaching job at USC last winter.

But the best player on the field during Saturday night’s game was an afterthought as a high school senior and nobody’s blue chipper. He played only one year of high school football, preferring to focus on basketball instead. His friends convinced him to try football. He was named to the all-state team.

Kincaid spent the next two years playing football at the University of San Diego, an FCS program that does not award athletic scholarships. Kincaid collected 68 catches for 1,209 yards and 19 TDs in two years, which earned him a scholarship offer from Utah.

Since joining Utah in the summer of 2020, he has largely been Brant Kuithe’s wingman. Kuithe is considered one of the top tight ends in the nation, but Kincaid’s play caused the Utes to find a way to play both of them, either splitting time or utilizing a two-tight end lineup.

Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid is brought down by USC linebackers Shane Lee (53) and Tuasivi Nomura at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) is brought down by USC Trojans linebackers Shane Lee and Tuasivi Nomura during game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. Utah won 43-42 and Kincaid had a monster night. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Kuithe had 50 catches for 611 yards and six TDs in 14 games; Kincaid had 36 catches for 510 yards and eight TDs in 14 games. Preseason football websites rated them among the top 10 tight ends in the country, with Kuithe ahead of Kincaid. They were splitting time again this season when Kuithe suffered a season-ending knee injury three weeks ago.

Kincaid’s production was, nevertheless, underwhelming — 23 catches through six games, or less than four catches per game — but turning them into five touchdowns. Other than the game against FCS school Southern Utah (a career-high seven catches) he hadn’t had more than four catches in any game this season.

A few days before the USC game, following a loss to UCLA, Whittingham told reporters, “We need to get (Kincaid) the ball more. … We have to involve him more. We have to throw the ball to him more, target him more. He had four catches (against UCLA), which is not enough. He has not been as much of a focal point of the offense as he needs to.”

Message received. All that changed in a spectacular way against a storied USC program Saturday night.

Kincaid’s game against USC  by the numbers

First quarter

12:50 Kincaid reception, 4 yards

11:58 Kincaid reception, 23 yards, first down

Second quarter

14:10 Kincaid reception, 4 yards

1:09  Kincaid reception, 15 yards, first down

:53   Kincaid reception, 9 yards

:40  Kincaid reception, 30 yards, first down

Third quarter

13:58  Kincaid reception, 30 yards, first down

12:02  Kincaid reception, 4 yards, touchdown

10:53 Kincaid reception, 18 yards, first down

6:26  Kincaid reception, 19 yards, first down

5:43    Kincaid reception, 17 yards, first down

0:00   Kincaid reception, 11 yards, first down

Fourth quarter

6:04  Kincaid reception, eight yards

4:35  Kincaid reception, 12 yards, first down

3:33  Kincaid reception, 19 yards, first down

2:35   Kincaid reception, 11 yards, first down