Nearly 11 months — 326 days to be exact — since playing in the Alamo Bowl, the University of Utah football team finally returned to the field to take on No. 20 USC on Saturday night, opening up its season after two weeks of cancellations due to COVID-19. It didn’t go very well.
The Utes’ offense struggled to get anything going as it turned the ball over five times in a 33-17 loss to USC.
Here are the grades from Utah’s first game of the season:
After three years of good quarterback play from Tyler Huntley, anticipation built all offseason as to who would be the next starting quarterback for the Utes. On Saturday, the starter was revealed to be Cam Rising, a sophomore transfer from Texas. Rising’s collegiate debut didn’t last long, though.
Rising thew just six passes before exiting for the remainder of the game after taking a shot to his shoulder early in the second quarter after fumbling on a sack by Marlon Tuipulotu. Rising could be seen on the sidelines without shoulder pads on and head coach Kyle Whittingham said after the game that Jake Bentley is “probably going to be the guy going forward.”
Rising finished his debut 3-for-6 for 45 yards, an interception and a fumble. While there’s not a ton to analyze Rising on based on a quarter of play, he did throw an interception off of his back foot — not his finest throw. Rising’s best play came when was flushed out of the pocked and recovered, throwing on the run to Cole Fotheringham for a 15-yard completion. It showed a glimpse of the Utah quarterback at his best, but it was a rare bright spot.
After Rising went out, Bentley was thrust into the starting quarterback position and didn’t fare very well in his Utah debut. The South Carolina transfer went 16-for-28 for 171 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Bentley’s first pick was simply a bad decision, a throw into double coverage in the third quarter. The second was a prayer heaved up in the final seconds of the game. Bentley’s arm strength wasn’t impressive and at times he completely missed his receivers.
“The thing we didn’t count on was not being productive on offense. We thought we’d be much more productive offensively. We have a veteran group,” Whittingham said. “It’s tough to win games when you turn the ball over five times — one of those turnovers was a Hail Mary at the end — and only score 10 points offensively. You aren’t going to win many games in this league doing that.”
The Utah offense did have some bright spots, though, the most impressive coming on the the only offensive touchdown for Utah. On the nine-play, 75-yard drive that brought Utah within seven, Bentley engineered a scoring drive down the field that featured a 33-yard run across the field by Bentley and was capped with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Samson Nacua. On that drive, Bentley was a perfect 5-for-5. The Utes will have to have more of that Jake Bentley going forward.
Utah’s offensive line didn’t do the quarterbacks any favors. Seen as a strength this year, the offensive line did not live up to the hype as USC got in the backfield time after time. The Trojans finished with three interceptions, three sacks and six tackles for loss. The offensive line didn’t give the quarterbacks ample time to pass and fared similarly in the run game, unable to provide good enough blocking.
Jordan Wilmore led the team in rushing with 38 yards on 10 carries, including a 21-yard run, and freshman Ty Jordan was a bright spot with 32 yards on seven carries, though he did fumble on a botched handoff with Bentley, with Devin Brumfield contributing 28 yards and five carries. With Micah Bernard’s 8 yards, the four running backs combined for 106 yards of rushing offense — a steep drop-off from last year.
Tight ends Brant Kuithe and Fotheringham, focal points in last year’s offense, combined for just 38 yards. Utah’s receivers didn’t fare much better, though Bryan Thompson and Solomon Enis were good, combining for 90 yards, and Nacua caught a touchdown. Notably missing from the receiving corps on Saturday was Britain Covey, who would have surely helped the Utes’ offense.
“I thought the offensive line would take over. We didn’t really push people around like we had hoped to. We need to get ball to Brant Kuithe more. Ty Jordan showed some good things early and then we went away from him. We have to continue to get the ball to him,” Whittingham said.
Overall, with just one touchdown and five turnovers — three interceptions and two fumbles — Utah’s offense was definitely not what it was cracked up to be when Utah’s coaches said in the offseason that the offense was ahead of the defense.
With the offense struggling, Utah’s defense kept the Utes in the game for much of the night, something we’ve come to expect out of the position group. By far the biggest star of the night was Nephi Sewell. The junior linebacker was making plays all over the field for the Utes. Sewell scored the first touchdown of the season for Utah on a 23-yard scoop and score after Maxs Tupai forced a fumble. Sewell also had an interception and 10 tackles.
“Nephi balled out. That comes as no surprise because he balls out in practice every week. He’s done this consistently, so that came as no surprise. I was really happy with the way the defense played today, especially with all of the young guys who haven’t started or played. I was really impressed with what they showed,” linebacker Devin Lloyd said.
Utah’s defense was fairly decent, all things considered. The Utes’ defense bent, but didn’t break for most of the game. Run defense was solid, save for a 47-yard run broken off by Kenan Christon, holding the Trojans to 92 yards rushing. Utah was able to sack Kedon Slovis three times, with Devin Kaufusi, Mika Tafua and Hauati Pututau all taking down the USC star.
Pass defense was, again, fairly decent considering the youth of Utah’s secondary — by far the biggest question mark entering the season with two freshmen, two sophomores and just one senior starting. USC’s Air Raid offense and receiver speed is probably the best Utah will see this year, and the Utes handled it pretty well, all things considered. Sewell had an interception and Utah held the Trojans to 264 passing yards, well below their season average of 353 passing yards. Utah’s scheme had Sewell playing as a third safety for much of the game, which helped out.
“That secondary will get better. It was a big test. That’s probably the best corps of receivers in the Pac-12,” Whittingham said. “The yards we gave up, that’s not too bad. Young or old, it doesn’t matter. You have to perform. We do have some things we need to clear up.”
Utah’s decision to stick to man coverage most of the game burned them a couple times, but overall, the secondary didn’t make any giant mistakes.
It wasn’t the best game for the Utes’ defense, but it was respectable given the amount of slack that it had to pick up with the offense sputtering.
Special teams, usually a strength for a Whittingham coached team, was merely so-so. Kicker Jadon Redding made a 36-yard field goal for Utah’s first points of the season and made both extra points. Utah had no opportunities for kick returns and its only punt return was for 18 yards by Nacua.
Punter Ben Lennon wasn’t on his A-game, with an average of 36 yards per punt on Saturday, slightly down from his average of 41 yards last season. Lennon’s worst punt was just 27 yards.
Like the Utes, ESPN’s broadcast struggled at times. Its cameras went out late in the third quarter, leaving viewers in the dark about the game. Utah had the ball down 30-17 with 4:47 left in the third period, though those at home didn’t know that. With no game footage for nearly five minutes, ESPN commentators Dave Flemming and Rod Gilmore essentially hosted a podcast from their basements for everyone watching on TV before the cameras finally got working again.
We knew that we’d see some rust from the Utes, the only NCAA Division I football team left to play this season, after two straight games were canceled due to COVID-19 cases. With some players having gone through having COVID, combined with the toll of gearing up to play just for the game to be canceled two straight times, plus top-20 USC already playing two games compared to Utah’s zero, the result wasn’t particularly surprising, all things considered.
What was surprising was the lack of production from Utah’s offense and the overall bad play from both quarterbacks, plus the offensive line struggles and inability to get the run game going. Utah doesn’t know next week’s opponent for sure. It is scheduled to be against Arizona State, but the Sun Devils are going through a COVID outbreak of their own. In his postgame press conference, Whittingham said that he “wasn’t sure” who the Utes will play next week, adding that they’ll find out shortly.
Whoever that opponent is, Bentley and the Utes have to be better offensively in order to get their first win of the season.