PK: Utah Football Continues To Compete Despite Injuries

Oct 14, 2023, 5:09 PM

Utah Utes Football Cal Golden Bears...

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 14: Bryson Barnes #16 of the Utah Utes scores a touchdown against Patrick McMorris #9 of the California Golden Bears during the second half of their game at Rice-Eccles Stadium October 14, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – Halfway through the college football season, relying on a mishmash of lineups due to the well-documented rash of injuries, Utah somewhat remarkably can still entertain hopes of a third consecutive conference championship.

But don’t start making any non-refundable deposits for the trip to Las Vegas in December. The 2-1 Pac-12 record (5-1 overall) is largely circumstantial, built on lesser competition.

Not that Cal is necessarily a bad team, but the Utes are better even with being previously offensively challenged. They proved as much Saturday, beating the Bears 34-14 on a beautiful sun-splashed afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“Really good team win for us today,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It was good to see the offense come alive.”

Cal’s goal as usual is bowl eligibility, a feat the program has achieved only three times in the last 10 seasons. The Bears also haven’t been above .500 in conference play since Jeff Tedford, who is now at Fresno State, was the coach in 2009.

OK, maybe Cal is mediocre at best. Let’s turn to Utah’s other conference win against UCLA, which was in no position to beat Utes last month starting a quarterback barely removed from high school.

Still, with Halloween looming, the Utes deserve plenty of credit for finding enough ways to stay in contention. An outstanding defense, mixed in with a splash of occasional offense, can keep a team in virtually every game.

The formula again was on display against the Bears, who managed to sneak a receiver behind the defense in the first and third quarters for two touchdowns. Mostly, though, with the game still in reach, it was a series of punts and turnovers.

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Linebacker Lander Barton’s interception off a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage gave Utah a short field to set up the first touchdown. Cole Bishop’s fumble recovery off on heavy pressure on the quarterback inside Cal’s 15-yard early in the third quarter led to another touchdown that essentially put the game away.

At this rate, as the results prove, this is the blueprint for Utah to succeed. Anything else might be a pipedream, with the two best weapons on offense still not in uniform.

Quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe have yet to play in a game this season, denying any chance the Utes had to resemble a potent offense. Until further notice, with no need to give Rising any practice reps until his doctor fully clears him, expect much of the same.

For now, forget about any consistency at quarterback. The merry-go-round between Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson has stopped back on Barnes.

The former walk-on, who began the season as the starter and then was benched in the next week, is back in charge. Barnes provides enough of a passing threat to at least prevent the opposition from stacking the line of scrimmage.

“We need all cylinders firing at once for that sucker to go,” Barnes said.

There’s also a resurgent running game, surprisingly led by Sione Vaki, who also plays safety in his spare time, and former quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson. Good thing Utah got going on the ground game (317 yards rushing) because the back half of the season is no joke.

It starts next week against USC in Los Angeles. For all the Trojans’ ineptitude on defense, which has not shown any improvement over last season’s mostly embarrassing performance, the offense is arguably better than when quarterback Caleb Williams won the Heisman Trophy last season.

Can the Utes put up 30 points in the Coliseum? The defense may have to chip in to get there.

“We know we always need to get those takeaways,” said defensive end Jonah Ellis.

The same goes for Oregon the following game and then two weeks later against Washington in Seattle. The truth is, Utes should take a great level of accomplishment in maintaining a national ranking all season even if a loss or two looms ahead.

“Got some tough games coming up, obviously,” Whittingham said.

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PK: Utah Football Continues To Compete Despite Injuries