Utah Football: Utes Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

Tyler Huntley is putting together an impressive senior season as he hopes to lead the Utes back to the Pac-12 title game

Midway through the season, No. 13 Utah is looking as strong as advertised on both sides of the ball.

 

The Utes (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) are one of six FBS teams to rank in the Top 25 nationally in both total offense (25th) and total defense (10th). This is the fourth time in six seasons they have won five or more games in their first six contests. Utah has the look of a championship squad. Only one question remains. Can the Utes turn hype into reality?

 

The schedule gets a little tougher over the second half of the season than what Utah has experienced to this point. Still, as long as quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss stay healthy and the defense continues to perform at an elite level, there doesn't seem to be a challenge this Utes' squad isn't equipped to handle.

 

Offensive MVP: QB Tyler Huntley

Huntley has elevated his game to a new level this season. The senior has carved out a niche as one of the nation's most efficient quarterbacks. He has thrown 133 straight passes without an interception dating back to last season and is the only Power 5 quarterback that hasn't thrown an interception this season. Huntley leads the Pac-12 both in completion percentage (.756) and pass efficiency rating (187.6).

 

Defensive MVP: DE Bradlee Anae

he Pac-12's No. 1 run defense starts with Anae and his ability to be disruptive on the line. Utah earned some good fortune when he decided to put off a certain NFL career for another year. Anae is the current mayor of Sack Lake City. The senior ranks in the top 10 among Pac-12 players in both sacks (4.0) and tackles for a loss (5.0) this season. His 21 career sacks rank fourth among active FBS players and are eighth in school history.

 

Best Moment of First Half: Francis Bernard's Pick-Six against BYU

With Utah's offense struggling in the first half against BYU, Bernard had the game-changing play against his former team. He stepped in front of a wobbly pass from Zack Wilson, as the Cougar quarterback tried to avoid a sack, and returned it 58 yards, untouched, for a score. The Utes took a 9-3 lead at that point and never looked back. It offered a defining moment for a Utah defense that ranks among the nation's best once again.

 

 

Best Newcomer: RB Jordan Wilmore

Wilmore has had limited touches with Zack Moss dominating the backfield. Still, what he has shown so far is promising. Wilmore had a career-high 59 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries against Oregon State and is averaging 4.2 yards per carry through six games. He has a similar tantalizing mix of power, shiftiness, and speed that Moss showed as a freshman. Wilmore is capable of following a similar career trajectory if he continues to develop.

 

Biggest Surprise: LB Devin Lloyd

Linebacker appeared to be a potential weak spot in Utah's defense coming into the season. Lloyd has helped turn it into a position of strength with his inspired play. He leads Utah with 38 tackles and is second on the team with 4.5 tackles for a loss. Lloyd also had a 64-yard pick-six against Oregon State that doubled as his first career interception. The sophomore has a knack for getting to the ball, a trait that will serve him well during the rest of this season and beyond.

 

Three Things to Watch in the Second Half

 

1. Can Utah repeat as Pac-12 South champions?

The Utes entered the season as the favorite to repeat as division champs and were the preseason media pick to win an outright Pac-12 title. Can the Utes live up to those expectations? Right now Utah needs to take care of business and hope that USC suffers one more league loss. The Trojans hold a valuable tiebreaker after upsetting the Utes earlier this season. Given how Utah has played on both sides of the ball since that game, running the table through the rest of the regular season isn't out of the question.

 

2. Will Zack Moss become Utah's first player with three 1,000-yard seasons?

Moss turned some heads when he chose to not enter the NFL draft and return for his senior season. It's given him a chance to do something no other Utah player has accomplished. Moss needs just 486 yards to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher at the school. He is on track to surpass that mark with ease if he can stay healthy. Moss already has piled up 514 yards through five games and is averaging 7.6 yards per carry.

 

3. Will the Utes finish with the Pac-12's top defense?

Utah finished with the league's top rushing defense a year ago. The Utes have an opportunity to take it a step further this season. So far, Utah has held all six opponents under 100 rushing yards. The Utes are just one of two FBS teams to achieve this feat. Utah's defense has allowed just 27 second-half points through six games. Opponents have scored on four times on 29 second-half possessions over six games. The Utes currently rank in the top 10 among FBS teams in rushing defense (52.8 ypg), scoring defense (13.2 ppg), and total defense (271.5 ypg).
 

Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule

 

1. Nov. 2 at Washington

Utah scored 10 combined points in two games against the Huskies last season. Washington has taken a significant step back on offense, but it is still the same defensive behemoth. Still, the Utes have fared well offensively in recent trips to Seattle, averaging 32.0 points in their last two road games against the Huskies. Limiting Jacob Eason will be crucial, but a tough task. Eason has thrown for 1,692 yards and 13 touchdowns this season while completing 66 percent of his passes.

 

2. Oct. 19 vs. Arizona State

This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Sun Devils. It hasn't turned out that way. Arizona State has fielded one of the better defenses in the Pac-12 to this point. The Sun Devils rank right behind Utah in scoring defense (17.7 ppg) and total defense (354.5 ypg). Freshman QB Jayden Daniels also is progressing nicely on offense. Daniels has thrown for 1,610 yards and eight touchdowns, ranking third in the Pac-12 in passing yardage.

 

3. Nov. 23 at Arizona

As long as Khalil Tate is healthy, the Wildcats could be a late November roadblock for the Utes to deal with in pursuit of another Pac-12 South title. Tate has totaled 1,272 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air. Arizona will need his big plays to offset a secondary that allows 320.7 passing yards per game to rank 11th in the Pac-12 in that category.

 

4. Oct. 26 vs. California

One thing you can expect from the Bears is a low-scoring dogfight. A big problem for California's defense is that it is allowing 158.0 rushing yards per game. That's music to the ears of Moss and the rest of the Utah offense. The Bears also rank dead last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense and total offense.

 

5. Nov. 30 vs. Colorado

Utah is 6-2 against the Buffaloes since both teams joined the Pac-12 in 2011. Colorado has lost two straight in the series by an average of 22 points. The Buffaloes aren't likely to reverse the tide any time soon against their Rocky Mountain rival.

 

6. Nov. 16 vs. UCLA

This is going to be a nightmare for the Bruins. Utah has a clear edge on offense and defense, which has become a familiar theme in this series. The Utes have scored 141 total points over the last three years against UCLA. There's a good chance things will be equally ugly on the scoreboard for the Bruins this time around.

 

— 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.

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