The Utes delivered a convincing 42 point trouncing of the Idaho State Bengals in their home opener. With the "gimme" game now out of the way, Utah
must now gear up for a stretch of 11 games where each will offer a unique and difficult set of challenges.
The offense under Travis Wilson got off to a slow start in their first series, but they soon settled down on their way to a blowout lead by halftime. Wilson looked efficient, completing 13 of 18 throws for 265 yards and a touchdown while running for another. He also looked as healthy as he’s ever been, which is good news after last year's medical scares, but he still looked uncomfortable in the pocket at times and completed several throws to tight end Westlee Tonga while on the run.
Wilson is clearly the starter, but Kendal Thompson looked pretty good despite a rough opening series. His numbers weren’t spectacular going 6-10 passing but he was excellent at running the read option. If Travis Wilson can get to the point where he reads the defensive end as well as Thompson, Utah could become nearly unstoppable in the rushing game.
Utah’s receiving corps might be the most talented position group on the team. With wideout threats like Scott, Patrick, Clay and Tonga, Utah's leading threat Dres Anderson should have a dominant season in 2014. He debuted with 4 receptions for 111 yards in just the first half. While this group will certainly play against tougher competition going forward, they looked sharp and are undoubtedly poised for a strong season.
Booker was the team's best back on Thursday night rushing for 79 yards on just 10 attempts. While Poole is the most consistent of all the backs, Booker has the best vision of the group and possesses the best combination of speed, moves, and strength. He and Poole seem to be a 1 and 1A option, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Booker to get a heavier load in the coming weeks. As for Troy McCormick, he had a terrible debut struggling to find space to run and fumbling in the redzone. With strong performances from Poole and Booker, McCormick could find himself with limited opportunities as we move forward this season.
The newly revamped offensive line struggled at times with serious protection problems evident while tried to protect Wilson in the pocket. Salt and Poutasi had better games than Asiata and Dielman, but miscommunications and missed assignments were rampant amongst all of them early in the first and second halves. Though they gave up only two sacks, both Wilson and Thompson were flushed frequently from the pocket and that shouldn’t happen against a team like Idaho State.
On the defensive side, it was clear that the defensive line and linebacking groups were a bit soft when it came to stuffing Idaho State’s run game, especially up the middle. That’s pretty uncharacteristic for a typically strong Utah defensive line. Coach Sitake and his staff will likely focus in on shoring up gap assignments for the middle of the line during practice this week. Deep penetration off the edges by Orchard and Dimick and poor gap assignments in the middle opened the way for a solid 5.8 yards per rush and a 134-yard performance from Idaho State’s Xavier Finney.
Orchard started the season off with 2.5 sacks and at times he and Dimick were unstoppable. Nate’s speed and strength seem to have improved yet again from season to season, but he has to work on his consistency between plays as there were times in the first half in which he disappeared. It’s no secret that he can be as good as he wants to be, so now is the time for him to decide he wants to be unstoppable and play that way on every snap.
Utah’s secondary struggled, especially with the absence of Justin Thomas. Wykie Freeman and Davion Orphey both struggled during stretches, but Eric Rowe (despite a few bad penalties) performed pretty well considering his recent change to the position. With uber-talented Pac-12 receivers on the upcoming schedule this group has it’s work cut out for them. Hopefully we’ll see an improved squad against FSU. Dominique Hatfield, who played on both sides of the ball, had a nice coming out party making two pass breakups against ISU. With the current depth issues at corner we’ll likely see more of Domo at the position, especially if Orphey continues to struggle.
One of the biggest disappointments on Thursday night was the lack of takeaways yet again by the defense despite having several opportunities. Utah finished the game with zero takeaways and started the season -1 in the turnover column. That can’t and shouldn’t happen especially against a team like Idaho State. If the Utes are going to get back to a bowl game this year they are going to have to have to start generating a couple of takeaways each game. It’s not a question of getting lucky but rather creating opportunities when it comes to the turnover game.
Utah turned in one of the most dominating special teams performances in recent memory on Thursday. First and foremost, Kaelin Clay is the real deal. Utah toyed around with Poole, McCormick, and Hobbs as punt and kickoff returners, but after Thursday you have to believe that Clay will be named the starter on both squads heading into Saturday's game against Fresno State. Clay’s ability to start, stop, and start again and quickly move to full speed makes him a tough out on returns. He’s also hard to bring down as he broke tackles on both TD returns. As soon as Clay is fully acclimated to the altitude and in better football shape you’ll likely see him move into the slot on offense where they'll try to take full advantage of his explosiveness.
Finally, Tom Hackett is a star! I know we’re talking about a punter here, but he has mastered his job as a junior. Hackett has absolute control over his punts and seems to place it anywhere he’d like which on Thursday was typically between the 5 yard line and the endzone. He will prove to be one of Utah’s biggest weapons this season and if he can keep up the pinpoint accuracy will likely repeat as an all-Pac-12 performer.
Utah kicks off the season with a nice warm up win over Idaho State, however, the real test begins against Fresno State.