Question marks have transformed into exclamation points for Utah on offense as it prepares to face long-time rival BYU this week. The Utes unveiled a new offensive scheme in their season opener against North Dakota with favorable results.
After shaking off a sluggish first quarter start, Utah marched down the field at will in a 37-16 victory over the Fighting Hawks from the FCS ranks. The Utes generated 499 yards of total offense and converted all seven of their scoring opportunities in the red zone. It helped Utah improve to 22-1 against non-conference opponents since joining the Pac-12.
"We did whatever we wanted to do in our first game,” sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley said.
No one can argue with Huntley. In his first start, he showed some of the skills that helped him beat out Troy Williams for the starting job. Huntley emerged as a true dual-threat QB over four quarters. He threw for 227 yards and a touchdown while completing 71.9 percent of his passes. On the ground, Huntley added 70 yards and two more scores.
Huntley isn't alone in making an impact. Fellow sophomore Zack Moss rushed for a career-high 128 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, averaging 5.8 yards per attempt. Oregon transfer Darren Carrington added an extra pop to the passing game. The senior receiver totaled 127 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches in his Utah debut.
Carrington expects the Utes to accomplish even more on offense against their upcoming opponents – starting with BYU.
“The confidence is out the roof,” Carrington said. “We can only go up from there. That was just the beginning. I don't think that anybody has seen anything yet from the whole offense. We got a bunch of other receivers that are going to put up numbers too.”
It is only one game, but Utah looked radically different in executing plays and finishing drives compared to the final few games from last season. The Utes averaged 6.3 yards per play, committed only one turnover and punted just once against North Dakota.
Utah looked sharper in the passing game than what it had shown in a long time, but the Utes did not abandon the ground game either. Nor does head coach Kyle Whittingham want it to happen. He prefers keeping a balanced attack in place in favor of yielding completely to passing the ball in bunches.
“Troy Taylor's offense is wide open and a lot of (passing), but that doesn't mean if we feel like we've got things there in the running game that we're not going to take advantage,” Whittingham said.
Utah's offense will face a much stiffer test when the Utes travel 40 miles down Interstate 15 to take on BYU on Saturday night. The Cougars employ a tough defense that second-year head coach Kalani Sitake modeled after the defenses he coached when he employed as Utah's defensive coordinator from 2009-14.
Whittingham mentored Sitake as he rose through the staff from defensive assistant to coordinator over an 11-year period at Utah. Some familiarity exists in terms of coaching and philosophy and Sitake has modeled some things he's doing at BYU after what Whittingham has done with the Utes.
Sitake looks at Utah as a template for how he wants to build his own program and admires how the Utes have recruited and adapted on both sides of the ball to be competitive in the Pac-12.
“What Coach Whittingham has done and what his vision was has a lot of influence on what I want to do as a coach here,” Sitake said. “The goal here is to make sure that we have better depth and that we play better."
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Photos courtesy of Utah Athletics/Kory Mortensen)