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Utah Football: Utes Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

Utah Utes Midseason Review and Second Half Preview: Zack Moss

Utah Utes Midseason Review and Second Half Preview: Zack Moss

Utah's dreams of claiming a Pac-12 South title aren't dead yet as the Utes reach the season's midpoint. Back-to-back resounding wins over Stanford (40-21) and Arizona (42-10) rescued Utah after a 0-2 start in league play threatened to derail the season.

The Utes (4-2, 2-2 Pac-12) enter a much more favorable stretch over their final six regular-season games. Their toughest opponents, Oregon and USC, visit Salt Lake City. Colorado is the most formidable road foe remaining. Score wins in those contests — and take care of business against Arizona State and UCLA — and Utah will likely punch a ticket to the Pac-12 Championship Game for the first time ever.

If Utah can maintain its defensive excellence and offensive momentum, climbing atop the Pac-12 South is an attainable goal. Offensively, the Utes have averaged 41 points and 458 yards over their last two league contests. On the other side of the ball, they currently lead the league in scoring defense rushing defense, total defense, pass efficiency defense, red zone defense, and opponent third down conversion percentage.

Offensive MVP: RB Zack Moss

A running back who can grind out tough yards is always the bread and butter of an effective Utah offense. Moss provides that quality for the Utes. He is well on his way to second consecutive 1,000-yard season, with 617 yards and seven touchdowns in six games. Moss is averaging a healthy 5.6 yards per carry for Utah.

Defensive MVP: LB Chase Hansen

It's accurate to say that Hansen is the heart and soul of a defense that leads the Pac-12 in several key categories. His move from safety to linebacker ended up being wildly successful for the Utes. Hansen leads Utah in tackles (52) and tackles for a loss (11). He is second in sacks (4.0) behind Bradlee Anae.

Best Moment of First Half: Jaylon Johnson's 100-Yard Pick-Six

Utah gained renewed momentum toward contending for a Pac-12 South title when the Utes used back-to-back red zone interceptions to take a 21-0 lead over Stanford en route to a 40-21 victory. Johnson provided the initial spark when he stepped in front of a pass from K.J. Costello at the goal line and became the first Utah player to score on a 100-yard interception return since 1994.

Best Newcomer: OL Nick Ford

Ford, a redshirt freshman, has already made a splash with his versatility on the line of scrimmage. He has made four starts in Utah's first six games. Ford has manned three different positions in that stretch, seeing time at left guard, right tackle and center.

Biggest Surprise: Utah's Third Down Defense

Getting third down stops became a persistent problem for the Utes a year ago. Utah allowed Pac-12 opponents to convert on 43.7 percent of their third down attempts. This season, it has been a radically different story. The Utes are allowing a third down conversion rate of 36.8 percent through their first four Pac-12 games. It's a major reason why Utah leads the league in several defensive categories.

Three Things to Watch in the Second Half

1. Can another consistent receiving threat emerge alongside Britain Covey?

It didn't take long for Covey to resume being an impact player after returning from a two-year LDS mission. The sophomore receiver leads Utah in receptions (39) and receiving yards (405) as he has become Tyler Huntley's most reliable target. Finding other reliable threats alongside Covey has been a challenge. Demari Simpkins, Samson Nacua and Jaylen Dixon have all shown potential to step up, but none of the trio has more than 170 total yards through six games.

2. Will Zack Moss reach 1,500 rushing yards?

It's a safe bet that Moss will have another 1,000-yard rushing season, assuming he remains healthy down the stretch. Moss has totaled 617 yards through the first six games. But there's an outside chance the junior could challenge to become just the fourth Utah player to rush for 1,500 yards in a season. Moss needs 883 yards to get there. Assuming Utah reaches a bowl game, he would need to average a little over 126 yards per game to reach the 1,500-yard mark.

3. Does Utah avoid a November swoon?

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Forget Halloween. The real time of horror for the Utes comes in November. Utah has not posted a winning record during the month since winning three of four games in 2011. The Utes have lost either two or three games in the month every season since that time. Will it be different this time? The schedule is manageable with home games against Oregon and BYU and road games at Arizona State and Colorado in November.

Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule

1. Nov. 10 Oregon

The Ducks roasted Utah's defense a year ago even though quarterback Justin Herbert was sidelined with an injury. With a fully healthy Herbert, slowing down Oregon's explosive offense could give the Utes their toughest remaining test. Oregon currently leads the Pac-12 in scoring offense (43.0 ppg) and ranks second in total offense (482.8 ypg).

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

2. Oct. 20 USC

Utah's last two home games against USC have come down to a game-winning play by the Utes in the final seconds. The stakes and drama will be high as usual. The Utes can't afford a stumble against the Trojans if they want to stay in the Pac-12 South title chase. USC, behind freshman quarterback JT Daniels, has been inconsistent on offense through the first half of the season.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

3. Nov. 17 at Colorado

You can bet the Buffaloes will be seeking revenge after getting soundly beat by Utah a year ago. The Utes have won five of seven in this rivalry series since both teams joined the Pac-12. Colorado remains a bit of an enigma after starting strong against one of the nation's weakest schedules. Steven Montez is the Pac-12's most efficient quarterback, however, completing 70.5 percent of his passes.

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4. Nov. 3 at Arizona State

The Sun Devils have made strides on defense under first-year head coach Herm Edwards. Arizona State has not given up more than 28 points in a game this season. The offense, on the other hand, has disappeared against good opponents. The Sun Devils have scored more than 21 points only twice — in wins over UTSA and Oregon State.

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5. Nov. 24 BYU

When BYU upset Arizona and Wisconsin in September, it appeared this could be the season where the Cougars could finally snap a seven-game losing streak in the Holy War. That doesn't seem to be the case now. Utah has a decided advantage over its traditional rival to the south in speed and athleticism. The Utes will be a heavy favorite to win their eighth in a row over BYU.

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6. Oct. 26 at UCLA

Nothing has gone right for Chip Kelly in his debut season with the Bruins. UCLA is mired in its worst football season since WWII and it's likely to get worse before it gets better. The Bruins don't have a good enough offense to keep up with most opponents. Utah has averaged 50 points per game in its last two wins over UCLA.

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— 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.