This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Kyle Whittingham called the upcoming slate "a whole new season," and in many ways, it is. Starting with USC coming to Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday night, the Utes will quickly find themselves running the Pac-12 gauntlet without a break until November.
But Utah's 3-0 start in nonconference play informs what the team is, and through three games, there are clear patterns emerging. Poll voters felt strongly enough about Utah's start to slot them in the top 25 this week (No. 24 in AP, No. 23 in USA Today/ESPN).
What Utah has shown so far is somewhat familiar: unsteady on offense, but sound on defense. But there's a bit more to it than that. Some lessons from non-conference play:
1. The defense knows how to get to opposing quarterbacks in the pocket.
The performance Utah's defensive line was able to put on Saturday night reminded fans why the "Sack Lake City" moniker was coined two years ago. It wasn't only the sheer volume, 10 total sacks tied for the second-best mark in school history, but also the number of players involved: Eight men wrapped up San Jose State quarterbacks in the 34-17 win, in the same week that Utah learned it was losing a starting defensive end.
"I would say it's contagious: You see one person making plays, and it makes you want to make them that much more," senior end Hunter Dimick said. "With the group of guys we have, we start getting that ball rolling, we try to keep it going."
From SUU's McCoy Hill, to BYU's Taysom Hill, to SJSU's Kenny Potter, Utah has made quarterbacks look terribly uncomfortable in the pocket. The one area of concern might be once those passers are outside of the pocket: Utah has been run on by quarterbacks in the last three weeks, and Whittingham identified a need to tackle better against QB runs.
2. Tim Patrick has helped Utah stretch the field in the passing game.
For all the preseason talk of junior quarterback Troy Williams, maybe some of it should've focused more on who he was throwing to. Senior Tim Patrick has lived up to his hype, and has thrived with 14 receptions for 285 yards (No. 19 nationally) and all four of Utah's receiving touchdowns.
Williams has given Utah's offense a more vertical feel, tossing passes of 30 or more yards to five receivers already. But it's clear that his go-to man is Patrick, the 6-foot-5 target with speed and physicality, who has been reliable even as it's become clear he is the No. 1 threat to any defense he faces. SJSU sat high on some of Patrick's routes early, but he still managed to overcome the Spartans' attention on him.
Utah's offense has worked in reverse of its recent form in that way: The passing game threat has softened up the run game. After putting up only 3 yards rushing in the first quarter of the game, Patrick's deep receptions helped spread SJSU out and allowed Troy McCormick, Zack Moss and Armand Shyne to lead the way to 201 rushing yards.
"They had to honor him and respect him," Whittingham said. "That's what we lacked last year. We didn't have that deep threat. We gotta try to make defenses play honest."
3. The red zone has been a rough area on both sides.
Despite a convincing win, Williams was smarting still from throwing his fourth pick of the season, an interception in the end zone.
"Just have to be better at finishing," he said. "We have the capability to do it. We just need better decisions on my part, and better finishing once we get to the red zone."
While the Utes were once again able to move the ball between the 20s, they scored only four touchdowns from seven red zone possessions. They weren't able to reach the end zone on drives that ended on the 5- and 2-yard lines. While Utah's running backs were able to pile on in the end, it was rough sledding early. For the season, Utah's 71-percent red zone scoring rate is ranked No. 111 in the country and last in the Pac-12.
Utah could also be better on defense, where it is ranked No. 105. Every opposing red zone possession has ended in a field goal or touchdown. That's in part of a few of the compromising positions turnovers have put Utah's defense in during nonconference play, but despite eight takeaways, none has come in the red zone.
USC at Utah
P Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • FS1