Nate Johnson performs well in first start, defense dominates as Utah takes care of business against Weber State
A challenging conference slate beckons. After beating two Power Five teams in Florida and Baylor, Weber State was a “get-right” game for the injury-plagued Utes
One of the nation’s most impressive streaks lives on.
In Utah’s 31-7 win over Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday afternoon, Lander Barton upped the Utes’ streak of consecutive years with a pick-six to 20 (2004-2023), the longest streak in the nation and tying Arizona State’s record of 20 consecutive seasons (2000-2019) with an interception return touchdown.
Barton’s first career pick-six came in the third quarter, as he saw the route all the way and jumped it. After the interception on Weber State’s 23-yard line, it was nothing but daylight all the way to the red turf of the end zone for the sophomore linebacker.
“We were running a simple man pressure right there, but we knew Weber State is a big RPO team ... I’m just the edge player and we knew to that single side X (receiver), they’re going to throw a slant, a glance route or a stick,” Barton said.
“So I’m just trying to read that quarterback, see what he’s doing. If he’s going to keep it and run, crash on it. If he’s going to sit there and try to throw, kind of just sit in that window and I mean he just threw it and just made a play.”
It was the highlight of the contest in what was a ho-hum win for the Utes over the No. 7-ranked FCS Wildcats.
Missing at least 10 key contributors, Utah’s offense looked good enough and the defense allowed just seven points, including none in the second half.
That’s about all you could ask for.
Utah heads into Pac-12 play undefeated, with all of its goals still on the table.
After beating two Power Five teams in Florida and Baylor, Weber State was a “get-right” game for the injury-plagued Utes. The starters played all of the first half, and slowly but surely, began getting subbed out starting in the third quarter.
Utah doesn’t get to ease into Pac-12 play; No. 24 UCLA heads to Salt Lake City next Saturday.
After two tests to open the season, the matchup against Weber State couldn’t have come at a better time for the Utes, who are trying to get healthy for the final season of the Pac-12 Conference as presently constituted.
The most intriguing part of Saturday afternoon’s contest was the performance of quarterback Nate Johnson.
With Cam Rising missing his third straight game, it was Johnson’s first start for the Utes. Johnson led the Utes to a comeback win over Baylor, and was moved up to QB2 (and the starter if Rising couldn’t go) on Monday.
And though Utah’s offense didn’t look like world-beaters on Saturday, it was a marked improvement from the previous two games.
Johnson finished the afternoon 13 for 21 for 193 yards and a touchdown through the air and added 71 yards and a score on the ground.
“He had a good outing and he’s a confident kid,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Nothing seemed to bother him. He’s a very stable-minded and very, very even tempered and that’s a good thing for a QB.”
The redshirt freshman was quick and decisive, the ball looked good coming out of his hands and he made the right decision often.
Against an FCS opponent, Utah was pretty conservative, with pretty vanilla play-calling and no real deep shots. The big gains through the air for Utah came mostly on yards after catch.
Johnson was turnover-free, but Weber State let two potential picks slip through its defenders’ hands.
The most impressive part of Johnson’s game was his running production. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig tailored his game plan to Johnson, calling plenty of quarterback keepers.
Other times, Johnson gained yards by spinning away from pressure and running, escaping Weber State defenders quite a few times.
Ja’Quinden Jackson, Jaylon Glover and Johnson combined for 187 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
With wide receivers Devaughn Vele and Mycah Pittman out, Munir McClain, who hadn’t had a reception this season, was a favorite target of Johnson’s.
McClain had receptions of 49 and 33 yards, making Weber State defenders miss and totaling quite a bit of YAC, but he wasn’t seen much in the second half.
Mikey Matthews, who had his breakout game against Baylor, had a 40-yard reception, and Money Parks had four grabs for 35 yards and a score.
Missing two starters, Utah’s wide receivers had their most productive day of the season so far.
The offense certainly hit lulls at times, especially in the second half, as it scored just seven points in the final two quarters of play.
“We did have some stretches where we were not as productive as we needed to be, but I think we have a chance to be really good if we get all our guys intact,” Whittingham said.
Utah did finish with 424 yards of offense, but as been the case after every nonconference game, the offense will simply need to be better for Pac-12 play.
Again, though, the defense dominated. Aside from Weber State’s lone touchdown, which was set up by a Damon Bankston 47-yard run, the Utes were stingy on defense.
Utah held Weber State to 127 total yards and had two takeaways — Barton’s pick-six and Logan Fano’s strip and recovery on quarterback Kylan Weisser.
The Wildcats only advanced to the red zone one time as Utah’s defense looks like the real deal entering conference play.
Meanwhile on special teams, the Utes were missing kicker Cole Becker and Joey Cheek filled in on placekicking duties, where he made a 37-yard field goal.
Chase Carter handled kickoff duties, where Utah struggled big time. Carter had just one touchback on six kickoffs, and the Utes’ kickoff return team allowed an average of 27.4 yards on returns, including big gains of 41 and 33 yards.
Whittingham called the kickoff performance “horrendous.”
Elsewhere on special teams, punter Jack Bouwmeester, Utah’s field goal holder, had trouble with a low snap, fumbling it and wiping out a field goal attempt.
If Becker is back next week, perhaps his touchback ability will prevent big returns, but kickoff coverage is something Utah has to address and clean up this week.
As the Utes prepare for their last dance in the Pac-12, top of mind for everyone in the program is injuries.
“We’ve got to get healthy. We’ve got 15 or 16 guys that can really help us win that are not available. We’ve got to start getting them back,” Whittingham said.
Three more players were injured on Saturday, and Whittingham thinks two of those players will be out next week.
“I’ve been coaching 40 years. I’ve never, ever seen anything like this in that department,” Whittingham said.
A grueling conference schedule, featuring games against ranked teams UCLA, USC, Colorado, Oregon State, Washington and Oregon, begins Saturday.
The Utes want to be at full strength for the tough test ahead.
The big question — how many of those key injured players do they get back before the Bruins come to town?
EXTRA POINTS: Longtime Deseret News Utah beat writer Dirk Facer was honored in memoriam in the press box before the game. Utah reserved a seat in the press box for Facer, who died in March.