Kyle Goon, who covers Utah football and men’s basketball for the Salt Lake Tribune, asked me to answer five questions for him about this week’s game between the Utes and Huskies. “Fine,” I told him. “But only if you answer three questions from me, plus two more.” And wouldn’t you know it, the man said yes. So, here are my questions, and here are his answers.
1. Utah probably knew it wasn't going to have quite as many sacks this season as it did last year, but the Utes are still doing an OK job of getting to the quarterback. Do they accomplish that by blitzing, or does their front get enough pressure on its own?
Goon: “Utah's general philosophy is to create front four pressure, and they have personnel to do that. Hunter Dimick is Utah's leading sack guy (10 last year), and while he's been dinged up at times this season, the Utes also have capable rushers in ends Kylie Fitts and Jason Fanaika. Inside, they have a four-tackle rotation that excels at eating up space. While Utah has definitely had hits and misses in the sack game — only one last week against Oregon State — it's a fundamental part of the defense. I would expect Utah's defense perhaps to be even more aggressive against a freshman quarterback, trying to force him to think under pressure. Against Oregon, Cal, ASU and USC, Utah was able to get at least three sacks in each game.”
2. Everyone knows Devontae Booker is an elite college running back, but how would you characterize Utah's offense as a whole this season?
Goon: “It's been inconsistent, and fans probably would use the word "frustrating." For just about forever, Utah hasn't had a reliable passing game. With the exception of the Oregon game, Utah hasn't passed for more than two touchdowns in any game this year. The Utes are 11th in passing offense, and 6th in passing efficiency — nothing that really impresses. It's a two-pronged issue. Travis Wilson has had a few bouts with ugly games, and he can struggle after an initial turnover like he did in games against Cal and USC. But Utah's receiving corps hasn't been anything to write home about either: Utah's leading receiver is 5-foot-8 freshman Britain Covey who is averaging fewer than 50 yards per game, and Kenneth Scott and Booker are closely behind. Wilson isn't perfect, but he probably needs more help from the playmakers he's throwing to.”
3. What are Travis Wilson's strengths, and when he hasn't played so well, what have opponents done to make that happen?
Goon: “In my opinion, the ideal Travis Wilson game is when he throws above a 70 percent completion mark and also is able to run consistently. He can be a very efficient short- to medium-range passer (he was 14 for 17 against OSU) and he can be deadly when he calls his own number on an option run. He doesn't have much shake to him, but he's a surprisingly fast straight-line runner, and he's rushed for almost 300 yards (more impressive when you consider sacks count against his rushing total) and four scores this year. As I alluded to earlier, Wilson often struggles when he gives up a turnover. After throwing an interception, we've continually seen him play pretty tight and try to force some things. His worst game this year came against USC, when he threw three picks to the same player, linebacker Cameron Smith, all on short to medium routes as if he couldn't see that Smith was waiting in coverage. We've seen at times that he seems to lack confidence in those moments, and when that happens, it can snowball.”
4. The Utes are a road underdog against an unranked team for the second time this season. Obviously, we know how the USC game turned out. Why do you think there is a perception of Utah as a beatable, good team?
Goon: “Two reasons. First, the offensive inconsistency is a huge issue. It's hard to imagine a playoff-caliber team that needs a scoring drive and can't get it. Utah's offense is average at best, and it's been bailed out by five defensive or special teams touchdowns this year. The other part of the perception, especially statistically, is Utah's advantage in turnover margin. At one point, Utah led the nation with 13 picks, and they won the turnover battle in their first six games. The last two weeks, Utah hasn't gotten any turnovers in a pummeling to USC and a somewhat lackluster win over lowly Oregon State. Turnover margin is often a bit of a "luck" stat, and many statistical models don't give it as much weight when they predict game results. Utah's early success with turnovers — getting them and not giving them — probably masked several of the team's flaws. That being said, the Utes probably feel the last two weeks have been the fluke, and they'll look to get back to forcing more takeaways against the Huskies.”
5. Is there something the coaching staff thought Utah would be better at this season? If not, in what areas have they most exceeded expectations?
Goon: “I don't think that there's anything necessarily Utah thought it would be better at than it's playing, and I still think most are surprised that Utah is 7-1. Most who were paying attention probably realized the passing game would remain marginal after losing Dres Anderson and Kaelin Clay. While Nate Orchard graduating hurt Utah's sack ability, it's also not surprising that Utah's depth on the defensive line is still extremely solid. As an offensive lineman told me on Devontae Booker: "Book is Book," so no shocker there. I think the most impressive thing to me is in the secondary: The Utes graduated safety Brian Blechen and cornerback Eric Rowe (and Rowe was an NFL Draft pick), and the team temporarily suspended Dominique Hatfield for offseason legal issues. In August, when we weren't sure if Hatfield would return, the secondary looked like the weakest area of the defense. But with the emergence of Reggie Porter, newcomer Cory Butler-Byrd and Hatfield's comeback, it's now one of the strongest segments of the team. Sophomore safety Marcus Williams has been Utah's leading ballhawk (4 INTs) and is probably an upgrade from Blechen athletically.”