Late Saturday night, Utah quarterback Nate Johnson offered an apology.

After Utah’s 14-7 win over UCLA, Johnson tweeted, “I apologize for the way the game was played out credit to our defense for an amazing performance we will be better next week our offense is still awesome just things will get cleaned up see you guys next Friday.”

It’s fairly rare to see a player apologizing directly to fans on social media after a loss, not to mention a win that improved the team to 4-0.

It shows leadership, accountability and maturity beyond his years for Johnson to shoulder the blame for the Utes’ lackluster offensive showing and reach out to fans.

Yes, the offensive performance was bad on Saturday.

Utah’s offense scored just seven points and gained a season-low 219 yards of total offense.

Johnson was 9 for 17 for 117 yards, a touchdown, and turned the ball over once on a fumble.

There was some good shown by the redshirt freshman. He had a few nice throws, including 35-yard and 22-yard passes to Devaughn Vele and a 17-yard strike to Jaylon Glover that set up Utah’s only offensive score of the game.

He showed patience on his lone touchdown pass. On third-and-5 from the UCLA 7-yard-line, Johnson faked the handoff to Glover, rolled to his right and waited for the play to develop. He hit wide-open tight end Landen King for King’s first Utah touchdown.

Johnson is still losing the ball too often. He fumbled three times, two were recovered by him and one was recovered by the Bruins. He had a couple good runs on Saturday, including when he spun away from pressure, but it was also a bit of an issue — Johnson ran a little too often on dropbacks instead of passing. A portion of his passes were off the mark.

Nothing was truly bad from Johnson, sans the lost fumble, and as Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham explained after the game, Utah was just looking for him to manage the game.

“Not real prolific numbers, but didn’t throw any interceptions and managed the game for us,” Whittingham said.

Make no mistake, there’s a dropoff in quarterback play from Cam Rising to Johnson. This offense, and play-calling, would be completely different with Rising at 100% health, just look at the last two years with the veteran quarterback at the helm.

Through four games without Rising, Utah ranks No. 114 out of 130 FBS teams with just 170.3 passing yards per game. Add in the rushing stats, and Utah’s total offense jumps to No. 86 at 357 yards per game, but it’s still a far cry from the 467 yards of offense the Utes were averaging per game last season.

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Whittingham said postgame that Johnson has “access” to 75% of the playbook, meaning offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is comfortable calling 75% of Utah’s offensive play sheet for Johnson. That number is up from 50% for the Weber State game, but you couldn’t tell on Saturday.

Utah ran the ball 74% of the time against UCLA.

Johnson has looked at his best when the offense was open and he was able to pass freely and get in a rhythm, like in the fourth quarter of the Baylor game, when the redshirt freshman led the Utes to a comeback victory.

With the defense playing so well and a young backup quarterback in the game, it’s understandable to want to be careful on offense and limit turnovers. But Saturday’s play calling, especially in the second half, skewed too conservative.

Take Utah’s first drive against UCLA for example. Ludwig dialed up play-action after three straight runs, and it worked. Johnson found an open Vele for a 22-yard gain to get Utah to the UCLA 30-yard-line. The following three plays were a designed run for Johnson for 3 yards, a Ja’Quinden Jackson run for a 1-yard loss and another Jackson run for a 1-yard loss. The result of the promising drive was a missed 47-yard field goal by Joey Cheek. The play-calling killed all the momentum from the completed pass.

Utah’s drive with 10 minutes left in the second quarter was exclusively on the ground. Glover ran the ball six straight times, getting a first down on the series, but got stuffed on the ensuing third down. Johnson wasn’t given a chance to throw the ball.

In comparison, the only touchdown drive featured Johnson throwing the ball five times, with three completions, including the score.

Without a passing game to keep them honest, most of the second half featured UCLA loading the box. The absence of Jackson, who limped off the field early in the second quarter with an ankle injury and was ruled out for the remainder of the game, hurt the run game. Glover did his best, but there’s only so much you can do when the Bruins — and the entire stadium — know the run is coming and scheme appropriately.

Give credit to UCLA’s defense, which played well pretty much the whole game. They’re the best defense the Utes have faced thus far.

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What really matters is that Utah got the win, and Ludwig’s play-calling limited any possible offensive turnovers. But if the Utes’ defense didn’t have one of the better games in school history, who knows what the result would have been. Of course, had the defense not been playing phenomenally, the play-calling probably would have been more aggressive.

What we do know for sure is that in games against Washington, Oregon and USC, Utah won’t be able to score 14 points and win, even if the defense performs well. Those offenses are just too good to be shutout, even with Utah’s defense playing at an elite level.

Rising returning could fix a lot of the offensive woes, but until that moment arrives, Johnson is your quarterback.

Can Utah trust him a little bit more going forward?

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