It is now officially Utah week, as the Utah Utes head to Husky Stadium to take on Washington, in a vitally important game for both teams. For this week, I was joined by Michelle Bodkin of KSL Sports to talk Utah football:
MS: Kyle Whittingham needs no introduction in college football coaching circles. At Utah as the head coach since 2005, he has overseen perhaps the most consistent program in the country. How has he been able to maintain this high of a standard for his team for so long?
MB: Whitt has only had two losing seasons (2012 and 2013 after making the jump to the Pac-12) in his 19-year run as head coach at Utah and I think it’s largely due to the fact from top-to-bottom of that program he knows what he wants and needs to succeed and never settles for less. I realize it’s super cliché and a lot of programs say it, but at Utah Whitt has built his program around family and they really, truly are that. He’s hired several coaches who have bled and sweat on that field as players and who get what it’s about which has set a solid foundation. Morgan Scalley, Luther Elliss, Sharrieff Shah, Quinton Ganther, and Lewis Powell all played under Whitt at one point and time (some when he was a defensive assistant at Utah) and so there is total buy-in starting with the staff that bleeds into total buy-in with the players. Because a lot of his staff are “Utah Men” there is a sense of pride in the work they do which makes the coaching turnover at Utah minimal and I think we all know consistency in the staff helps breed consistency in players returning and consistency in the on-field production year-in and year-out.
MS: On offense for Utah, the big story of course is the QB situation. Cam Rising has been shut down for the year, leaving Bryson Barnes to helm the ship for the Utes this year. What do you like about him, and do you think we’ll see the other quarterback, Nate Johnson? What pass catchers will Dawg fans need to watch out for?
MB: Bryson Barnes is such a feel-good story and is the epitome of the kinds of players Kyle Whittingham looks for and loves to bring into his program. Barnes may not be the best quarterback Utah has ever had- he’s not the fastest, doesn’t have the biggest arm, isn’t the most athletic, etc., but what I like about him is that he is a no-excuse guy that knows how to put his head down and just go to work and he LOVES the game. The rest of the team really loves and respects him for that and he’s certainly given the Utes some moments over the years both coming in cold as the backup and as a starter. I mean, his entrance and introduction to the college football world in the 2022 Rose Bowl game? You can’t write a better script than that outside of pulling off the win. Beating the reigning Heisman winner in L.A. as the “Pig Farmer”? The guy is a legend at this point.
I think it’s highly unlikely that we see Nate Johnson unless something happens to Barnes. Johnson has been deemed the backup QB and while he has a nice skill set that can be used for a change of pace, I believe the coaching staff has put the kibosh on that since it was announced there is no chance Cam Rising returns this season. Between that and Brandon Rose being behind the eight ball after suffering his own injury during fall camp that made him miss several weeks of practice, Utah doesn’t have a lot of bodies left in the QB room to work with and so they are being careful with who they have left.
As for Utah’s pass catchers. I think most UW fans are pretty familiar with Devaughn Vele. He’s been in the Utah program since the last time the Utes traveled up to Seattle. He’s been coming on strong the past few weeks and has really turned into a reliable playmaker for Barnes. Some other guys to watch for- tight end Landen King has been coming along and getting more touches as the season has gone along. The Utes also have a freshman they are super high on in Mikey Matthews who they expect great things from in his career. While he’s been a little quiet as of late, Money Parks is always a threat to have an explosive play or two and Munir McClain has shown some big-play capabilities in the few touches he’s received as well.
MS: Utah likes to run the ball and they have 3 guys who can do so, in Ja’Quinden Jackson, Jaylen Glover and wildcard safety/running back hybrid Sione Vaki. How important is this run game going to be down the stretch for the Utes?
MB: If you talk to Kyle Whittingham on a regular basis, you know that Utah is going into every game with the main goals of getting the run game going on offense and stopping the run on defense. That is their secret sauce from which the whole thing works. With that said, getting guys like Jackson, Glover and Vaki going will be huge for the Utes as it opens up the pass game for Barnes who still has a tendency to overthink in that area of his game. The more open the passing becomes due to the run game working, the more comfortable Barnes has looked so it’s huge. There is some question about if Jackson will be available and how potent he may be after reaggravating an ankle injury last week that he’s been dealing with all season. If he’s in good enough shape to go and be effective, Utah should be able to at least keep it interesting.
MS: Utah’s defense has been its calling card this year. The best thing about their defense is their ability to get pressure on the quarterback exemplified by Jonah Elliss’ 11.5 sacks on the year. What does the UW O-Line need to look out for and who are the other playmakers on defense to look for?
MB: While Utah’s defensive ends- Elliss in particular get a lot of the credit, it really starts on the interior of Utah’s defensive line. Their goal each and every play is to crash the pocket and force the QB out making it easier for the defensive ends to make plays off the edge. UW’s center and guards are going to have to really work together and avoid confusion as much as possible so that Junior Tafuna, Simote Pepa, Aliki Vimahi, Keanu Tanuvasa and crew don’t create opportunities for Elliss, Van Fillinger, and Connor O’Toole to get home.
MS: Utah has been pretty snake-bitten by injuries, allowing other under the radar guys to step up. Who has been the biggest surprise in terms of their play?
MB: There have been a lot of guys who have had opportunities to step up in key moments and shine this season for Utah. You don’t get to 7-2 with the amount of injuries they’ve had to key players with the kind of schedule they’ve had to play without a great amount of teamwork and everyone doing their one eleventh at some point and time. You can look at Nate Johnson’s last two drives against Baylor, Bryson Barnes’ run to set up the field goal at USC, the Utah defense against UCLA, etc. Everyone has kind of had a moment here and there that was really crucial. If we are talking about one player and consistently having a moment- it has to be Sione Vaki. We all went into this season knowing he was going to be really good on defense for Utah. That is what we all were expecting here in Salt Lake City. What we weren’t expecting was him being able to step up and play both ways at a high level the way he has. As amazing as he is on defense, I personally think his offensive play is where a lot of his ability and athletic talent shows through. He has been a revelation for the Utes and a complete difference-maker on both sides of the ball.
MS: It’s time for a score prediction! What will the score of this game be?
MB: Whew. This is another game where I can see several different scenarios playing out and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised by any of them- it could be a blowout in favor of Washington, it could be a close, upset win for Utah. However, I think the most likely scenario is that Utah plays UW close and tough largely due to their defense but doesn’t have quite the firepower they need on offense to get the job done. 35-28 in favor of the Huskies.
Thanks Michelle! For my answers to her questions, check out KSL Sports!