Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: After scoring just 35 points in the first two Pac-12 games combined, Utah put up 40 or more in four straight games. What was the key to the offensive explosion?
Shane: It was a combination of things. First, Utah discovered an identity. They flirted with it in the Washington State game, but they reestablished themselves as a run first team. They introduced a new formation, basically a two tight end set that allowed Huntley to make a reads out of play action, or to allow Zack Moss to run downhill. Also, the offensive line started being more consistent in both pass pro and run blocking. Lastly, the wide receivers started catching balls. The amounts of drops we saw in the first four games of the season was maddening. Overall, they played a lot smarter, and a lot cleaner.
UWDP: What can we expect to be different when UW lines up against QB Jason Shelley instead of Tyler Huntley? What are Shelley’s strengths? Shortcomings? How has the pass protection been for Shelley?
Shane: The thing that I really like about Jason Shelley is his poise and confidence in the pocket. Tyler bounces around in the pocket a lot and will bail pretty quickly, and looks like he’s going 100 MPH back there, where Shelley is just cool and calm in the pocket. He also seemingly has better touch on his deep passing, where Tyler will rocket one in there. Some of his shortcomings are, frankly, his experience.
He’s only started three games, and he’s still learning so much. I’m not sure if he’s as dynamic in the run game as Huntley, but his option run he had against BYU may put that to rest. He’s also a few inches shorter, so I worry about his height behind the o-line. The pass protection has been really good overall, especially against Oregon and Colorado. In the BYU game the o-line got beat a little bit, but they cleaned it up and he was dealing in the second half.
UWDP: Armand Shyne has stepped in for Zack Moss and played quite well. He went off for 174 yards against Oregon. What kind of back is Shyne? Who else might contribute in the Utes backfield?
Shane: He’s fairly similar to Moss, but he doesn’t have that next level or gear. Moss was just so hard to bring down and had a knack for finding openings. Shyne is a very good back, and would likely be a starter for many Pac-12 teams, and he actually beat Moss out for the starting role a few years ago, but he blew his knee against Arizona. That was also before Joe Williams un-retired and went on his tear. Overall, Shyne is fast, hits the hole hard, and can shed tackles, but he’s no Zack Moss.
You’ll also see TJ Green, the redshirt freshman out of Arizona. I love this kid, he’s probably the fastest of all the backs, and just has a nose for playmaking. He gets a little too happy to try to bounce it outside, but once things slow down for him, I think he’s Utah’s back of the future.
UWDP: Britain Covey has been quiet catching the football lately with less than 50 yards in each of his last five games. He is, however, running the ball more. Is the QB situation responsible for that? How have the receivers been playing overall since we last saw the Utes?
Shane: Yeah, I think so, but Utah just wants to get the ball in his hands anyway possible. No doubt he’s the top of the scouting report for so many opposing teams, so they’ve been shading to him. Coach Whitt talks after every game how Covey needs more touches, so they’re just creative in doing that, whether it’s catch, running or even passing. He’s the Swiss army knife of football players.
Overall, they’ve played really well, as well as the tight ends. That first month of the season was rough, but they really have rallied. Samson Nacua has been a big weapon for Shelley the last few weeks, as has Jaylen Dixon. That dude is a home run ball waiting to happen. He’s averaging around 25 yards per catch, and will be targeted deep multiple times a game. Utah loves to dump the ball to their tight ends out of play action, which has opened things up a ton for the Utes. All the pass catchers are really fun to watch, and unique in multiple ways.
UWDP: The Utah defense has been great. Who’s really stepped up this season? What will the plan be to deal with Myles Gaskin and the UW running game?
Shane: The whole front seven. Pick a starter and they’ve stepped up, whether it’s Bradlee Anae, Chase Hansen, Cody Barton, Leki Fotu, Maxs Tupai, just pick a name. But that’s been the M.O. for Utah football for years, stop the run, and this is arguably the best group we’ve ever had doing that. As for the plan for Gaskin and the UW running game, honestly that’s at top of mind for Coach Whittingham and crew. They want to shut down that running game, and contain Gaskin as best they can. In the running game, last season, they did that well, it’s just he got loose in the receiving game. Honestly, Utah probably wants to put the game on Jake Browning’s shoulders, because I think they’d take their chances with him over the UW running game.
UWDP: Washington’s special teams has been bad more often than good this season. How has Utah played in that phase?
Shane: It’s been strange this year, because they are still really good, but they go through these weird phases of making mistakes. On punt return, for some reason, the up men have touched the ball multiple times this season causing turnovers — and Covey has muffed a few. On field goals, they’ve had some blocks, which is very strange, most of them early in the season, but we saw one this past week. When Matt Gay can get one off, which is almost always, he’s money. Punting has been good, overall, but same as the others, there are weird stretches. Mitch Wishnowsky has had to chase the snap a bit this year, which has led to some blocks and missed kicks. Kick return and kick off are virtually non-existent anymore so no need to talk about that. I’d say Utah’s special teams are way more good than bad, but when the bad happens it’s a head scratcher.
UWDP: Prediction for Friday night?
Shane: I’ve been rolling with the Utes all season, and I’m going to go homer with my pick, since I picked them to win the division well before the season. I’m thinking Utah gets this one, 23-21, and washes away that performance they had back in September. I know this, which ever team wins the line of scrimmage Friday, will win the game.
Thanks Shane. Be sure to check out Block U for more on the game from the Utah perspective.