Back-to-back close losses to Stanford and USC have damaged Utah's Pac-12 South title hopes. Still, the Utes (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) have many reasons to feel optimistic going forward into the second half of the 2017 season.
Many of Utah's key contributors on both sides of the ball are freshmen and sophomores. Before he got injured against Arizona, Tyler Huntley offered evidence of how much damage the Utes could do with an electric playmaker at quarterback. On defense, the secondary is becoming an area of strength with the emergence of young stars like Javelin Guidry, Julian Blackmon and Marquise Blair.
What will it all mean for the Utes as the regular season winds down? Here's a look back at what Utah has done so far and a glance at what lies ahead.
Offensive MVP: QB Tyler Huntley
When Huntley edged out Troy Williams as Utah's starting quarterback in fall camp, it turned some heads. Williams was a senior, returning starter and team captain. Huntley quickly proved it was no fluke and injected life into Utah's offense. Before being sidelined with a shoulder injury, the sophomore produced 1,174 yards of total offense. His 73.3 completion percentage (88 of 120) leads the Pac-12 and Huntley has a pair of 300-yard passing games in four starts this season.
Defensive MVP: DB Chase Hansen
It's easy to forget that Utah once recruited Hansen as a quarterback of the future. Hansen made a switch to defense late in his freshman season and has been a rock in the secondary ever since. He's the glue holding that unit together. Hansen ranks second in tackles per game (5.8) for Utah and has 29 total stops in five games. He also has a pass breakup and an interception.
Best Moment of First Half: Demari Simpkins' TD pass to Troy Williams
While Utah ultimately fell 28-27 to USC, the Utes had the Trojans on the ropes for an entire half. Utah forced key turnovers and showcased plenty of offensive creativity before halftime. One trick play best defined this stretch. Simpkins took a handoff from Williams and tossed it back to the senior quarterback in the flat. Williams streaked toward the pylon and stretched the ball over the goal line for a go-ahead Ute touchdown.
Best Newcomer: WR Darren Carrington
The Oregon transfer quickly emerged as Utah's top receiver with his ability to stretch the field and reel in all sorts of receptions. Carrington ranks in the top 25 nationally in receiving yards (593), receiving yards per game (98.8), receptions (39) and touchdowns (5). The senior is on pace to be Utah's first 1,000-yard receiver since Dres Anderson in 2013.
Biggest Surprise: PK Matt Gay
Life after Andy Phillips has gone much easier than expected with the emergence of Gay. A former soccer player, Gay had one year of football experience before joining Utah as a walk-on transfer from Utah Valley University. Gay didn't solidify his spot as starting placekicker until during the season opener against FCS opponent North Dakota. Since that time, he has been money. Gay leads the nation in made field goals (16) and made field goals per game (2.7).
Three Things to Watch in Second Half
1. Can Tyler Huntley pick up where he left off?
Huntley hasn't played since injuring his shoulder in the second quarter against Arizona. The good news for Utah is that it wasn't a season-ending injury. Huntley is making rapid progress and was cleared to practice this week. He could be back in the lineup as soon as Saturday against Arizona State.
One question remains once Huntley returns. How will his shoulder impact the sophomore's game and Utah's offense as a whole? Huntley likes running as often as passing. His mobility and accuracy added a dangerous element to the Utes earlier in the season. If Huntley is tentative or limited, it could make it tough for Utah to finish strong.
2. Will Zack Moss become Utah's latest 1,000-yard rusher?
Bruising workhorse running backs have been a staple of Utah's offense throughout head coach Kyle Whittingham's (above, right) tenure. Moss appears to be the latest one to fit that mold. Moss has the right mix of size, power and speed to do the job and the sophomore seems poised for a breakout season.
Moss enters the second half of the season on a high note. He rushed for a career-high 141 yards on 20 carries against USC. Through six games, Moss has churned out 485 yards on 93 carries and also has 104 receiving yards on 15 catches. He is averaging 97.67 rushing yards per game in Pac-12 play. At that pace, Moss will eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau during the regular season finale against Colorado.
3. Can the Utes avoid another November swoon?
Staggering to the finish line has been a Utah trademark in recent seasons. The Utes have a penchant for piling up losses in November as they wind down the regular season. Over the last eight seasons, Utah posted a winning record just once during the month. Even in that instance, in 2011, the Utes suffered a costly loss to Colorado that kept them from advancing to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Looking ahead to November, the schedule doesn't favor a strong finish for Utah. The Utes have two of their toughest remaining opponents – Washington and Washington State – in back-to-back weeks and cap the month off with a rivalry clash against the Buffaloes. Splitting the four November games may be the most realistic scenario.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 18 at Washington
An upset loss to Arizona State doesn't diminish the fact that the Huskies will pose the stiffest challenge among Utah's remaining opponents. Washington is one of the nation's best all-around defensive teams again, The Huskies lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense (10.6 ppg), total defense (236.9 ypg) and rushing defense (73.0 ypg). They rank second in passing defense (163.9 ypg), sacks (23) and turnover margin (+6). Moving the ball will be a chore for the Utes.
2. Nov. 11 Washington State
Until laying an egg against California, the Cougars looked unstoppable. Washington State is still a very good team that features an always dangerous offense and much improved defense. The Cougars lead the Pac-12 in passing defense (162.4 ypg) and tackles for a loss (58). They rank second in total defense (288.3 ypg) and third in scoring defense (21.1 ppg). Luke Falk is tearing it up as usual. The senior QB leads the Pac-12 in touchdown passes (19) and completion percentage (.708) and is second in total passing yards (2,286) and total offense (2,163).
3. Nov. 25 Colorado
Games between Utah and Colorado always come down to the wire. Since renewing their rivalry series in 2011, each game has been decided by an average margin of 5.3 points. The Utes have had the upper hand, winning four of six games during that stretch. They may have it again. The Buffaloes are struggling to stop Pac-12 opponents from shredding their defense. They've allowed 504.3 yards and 35.5 points per game in four league contests.
4. Sat, Oct. 21 Arizona State
After upsetting previously unbeaten Washington, the Sun Devils suddenly look a bit more formidable than earlier in the season. Manny Wilkins has been steady at quarterback, throwing for 1,697 yards and eight touchdowns while completing 66.8 percent of his passes. Arizona State is still weak on pass defense, but it has progressed significantly from the levels of ineptitude witnessed over the past couple of seasons.
5. Oct. 28 at Oregon
Oregon's offense hasn't been the same since Justin Herbert was sidelined with a broken collarbone. The sophomore quarterback threw for 1,264 yards and nine touchdowns before getting injured in the Ducks' fifth game against California. Without Herbert, Oregon has struggled to move the ball. The Ducks have mustered 17 points and 586 total yards in their last two games. Royce Freeman is still a big threat in the backfield, though, with 797 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 133 carries.
6. Fri, Nov. 3 UCLA
The Bruins will go as far as Josh Rosen can take them. With him at quarterback, the Bruins are leading the Pac-12 in total offense (527.2 ypg) and passing offense (399.7 ypg). The problem for UCLA is the defense can't get any stops when it matters. The Bruins rank 127th nationally in total defense (523.0 ypg) and 129th in rushing defense (313.0 ypg). That plays right into the strengths of a team like Utah that can dominate on the ground.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of Utah Athletics/Kory Mortensen)