This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah's biggest mistake in this two-game football series with Fresno State was making it look so easy last September.
By piling up 59 points and 526 yards behind Travis Wilson's five touchdown passes in that first meeting, the Utes created an impossible standard for the current version of their offense to match Saturday night at Bulldog Stadium.
No problem. Utah's defense and special teams provided nearly enough points via lineman Stevie Tu'ukolovatu's fumble return, Cory Butler-Byrd's kickoff return and Britain Covey's punt return for touchdowns. Ute running back Devontae Booker took care of just about everything else in a 45-24 victory.
There's an argument that Booker shouldn't have been required to do so much work for his 156 yards on 31 carries against a Mountain West opponent. The point is, he came through all night, repeatedly converting short-yardage plays into first downs. And when the game was mildly in question in the third quarter, Booker rambled 43 yards with a screen pass and then completed the 93-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown run for a 24-3 lead.
Afterward, Ute coach Kyle Whittingham summarized the performance as "some good, some bad."
That's accurate. Calling this 380-yard effort from Utah's offense acceptable would mean ignoring how Ole Miss scored 73 points against the Bulldogs. Then again, not much production was needed, because Utah's defense was outstanding through three quarters, anyway.
Fresno State's initial three points came via a drive of minus-1 yard, ending with a field goal after a fumble recovery on the opening kickoff. By allowing three touchdowns in the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter, the defense "kind of fell off in the end," Tu'ikolovatu said, "but that's something we can fix."
Utah quarterback Kendal Thompson performed serviceably, as Wilson dressed and warmed up but did not play because of a shoulder injury. If Wilson needed any validation as the Ute starter, Thompson provided it by throwing an interception in the end zone in the third quarter. Utah's botched handoff led to a Bulldog touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
But then Butler-Byrd and Covey scored their kick-return touchdowns, making it 38-10. Then came consecutive Fresno State touchdowns, followed by Thompson's TD pass that probably was unnecessary with 14 seconds remaining.
Whittingham's dubious explanation was that a 14-point lead was insufficient to secure the win, after "I thought it was put away two or three times, but it wasn't," he said.
Regardless, the Utes apparently got what they wanted from this two-year, nonconference scheduling strategy that interrupted the historic rivalry with BYU. They produced two attention-getting wins over Michigan, subdued the Bulldogs twice and beat Idaho State and Utah State once each.
Noting the Utes' annual nine-game Pac-12 schedule, athletic director Chris Hill said recently, "We can't hand our football coach and our team a nonconference schedule with Michigan, Utah State and BYU in the same year."
Hill cited the "emotional toll" of in-state games for inserting Fresno State in place of BYU in 2014-15, while scheduling home-and-home series with the likes of San Jose State and Northern Illinois in future years. The series with BYU resumes next season; USU is not currently booked.
As it turned out, Fresno State fit into the tidy package of a reasonably competitive opponent but not anybody that would threaten to beat the Utes. Geography also worked into the scheduling arrangement, for the sake of recruiting.
"I think there's value there," Whittingham said. "It's in our footprint."
Utah's coaches made some recruiting stops Friday, and the location was fairly convenient for parents of players from both the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. Yet the Utes' booking a game in Fresno apparently not much of a selling point to current players. Utah receiver Tyrone Smith, a freshman from Fresno's Edison High School, said the coaches never mentioned the potential homecoming opportunity during his recruitment.
Whatever. The Utes succeeded in building a 3-0 record as they prepare to open Pac-12 play next Saturday at Oregon, where Wilson presumably will be available.
In the buildup to Saturday's game, Ute co-offensive coordinator Jim Harding said, "We want to do a better job of running the football; we want to do a better job of throwing the ball in general."
Well, that should have covered it. The Utes stayed on the field long enough to get plenty of practice, anyway. They sustained drives of 19 and 16 plays in the first half, while keeping the ball for nearly 17 minutes on those possessions and accounting for their 10 offensive points. That would be good enough to keep the Utes ahead, in this case.