Run game returns as Utah breaks 4-game losing streak
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Every part of Utah’s offense was being picked apart seven days ago after the Utes’ fourth straight loss, the program’s longest skid since 2013.
A 48-17 blowout of UCLA seems to have erased a month’s worth of frustration, but now Utah must sustain that success.
“Offense, that’s what I envision how we’re supposed to look,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “As is everybody, we’re a lot better football team when we have the run game going like we did on Friday night.”
Utah opened last week ranked No. 85 in the nation with 146.8 rushing yards per game. A new fast-paced, pass-first scheme was implemented during the offseason with new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor that was supposed to energize a pass offense that was one of the worst in the Pac-12 year-in and year-out.
The pass game improved, but the run game fell off and Utah lost its identity. The excuses were far reaching. Coaches and players lamented that they lost their swagger and the chip on their shoulder. Mistakes were plentiful — a missed block here, a wrong route there — and issues were thought to be mental. A rhythm on the ground wasn’t consistently being established and many players simply wanted more run plays called. Taylor was even moved from the sideline to the coaches’ box.
All of that fell into place Saturday with a season-high 50 rushes and a season-high 153 yards rushing from Zack Moss. Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley added a career-high 93 yards on the ground himself and the 272 yards rushing by the team was a season high against FBS teams.
“You want to tailor-make your offense to your quarterback’s strengths,” Whittingham said, “and if you have a dual threat like Tyler, then you want to make sure you involve him in the run game and get him going.
“There’s more than one way to make an offense go. ... The games we’ve won this year, he’s been a big part of that. It was a really good blend of Tyler running and throwing.”
Huntley continued to grow within the passing game with 234 yards and four touchdowns, but the run threat clearly opened up more options within the offense. One call had Huntley taking the handoff and running for the perimeter with linemen leading the way in what looked like a designed run. But right before being tackled, Huntley pulled up and threw downfield to a wide-open receiver. Those and other run-pass options with Moss takes advantage of Huntley’s athleticism, but must be set up by the ground game.
“I really like those plays because they’ve got to commit one,” Huntley said. “Either drop back and let me run or come up and let me pass.
“Every game, we felt like we could do great things in the offense, but it’s just simple things that hold us back. ... (Last game was) a glimpse of what we can do.”
The Utes now have to sustain that success after facing UCLA’s porous run defense that ranks No. 129 out of 130 in the NCAA. No. 19 Washington State travels to Salt Lake City this week with the No. 3 run defense in the Pac-12 (136.4 yards per game) and No. 9 Washington will feature the No. 6 run defense (91.1 ypg) the following week.
“We just kept (running) the ball,” said Moss, who is 260 yards from giving Utah a 1,000-yard rusher for the fourth straight season. “We got into a rhythm in the run game and the rest was pretty much history from there.
“There was a lot more energy on the offensive side. We felt like we knew we could score every time we touched the ball.”