While the Utes are currently tied for first place in the Pac 12 South, a position the Bruins thought they’d be in before the season started, Utah has caught the injury bug that plagued the Bruins last year. Last week in his post-game presser, Head coach Kyle Whittingham looked weary as he said "there's never been a year like this" when it comes to injuries. The Utes played without running back Zach Moss and tight end Harrison Handley two weeks ago, while Tim Patrick played sparingly against Oregon State. Many of these players are game time decisions, and the injuries aren’t limited to the offense. The Utes are coming off a narrow 19-14 win over Oregon State in rainy Corvallis last weekend. Can the Bruins fix enough problems this week to send the Utes packing? Tom Bradley’s defense has looked solid week after week, but the unfortunate state of the offense has left us in the basement of the Pac 12 South. Let’s take a look at the offense we’ll be facing on Saturday.
Utah has played two quarterbacks so far this season, JUCO transfer Troy Williams and true Freshman Tyler Huntley. Utah has historically struggled to pass the ball since joining the Pac-12, so there are naturally question marks at this position for the Utes. Williams, a former Washington Husky, missed part of spring camp due to an injury, but was back for the start of the season and is currently 116 for 205, with just over 1,500 yards passing. You’ll see Williams in a multiple scheme offense lining up under center. He currently has seven passing and four rushing touchdowns. Huntley was one of three "co-starters" at quarterback coming out of spring camp, has seen action in three games (SUU, SJSU, Arizona. Read: garbage time) and has a modest 26 yards so far this year, all coming in his career debut against Southern Utah.
As it happens, Utah is coming off its worst passing game of the year, with Williams going 4 for 13 for 42 yards against Oregon State. Weather conditions played a part, and Whittingham also acknowledged they should not have gone away from the passing game in the second half. UCLA's passing defense is a bright spot in this year’s struggles, ranking seventh in pass efficiency defense (98.46), picking off eight passes this year. Opponents average fewer than 200 yards per game, so it is safe to say that the passing game should be easily defended this week (I feel like I always have to say stuff like that with one caveat: you never know what you’re going to get from the Bruins).
Utah’s offensive live took a huge hit when three-year starting center J.J. Dielman suffered a lower leg injury during their game against Cal. Fourth-stringer Nick Nowakowski started started two weeks ago against Arizona and "didn't play poorly," but with whom Utah struggled with false starts. While Whittingham claimed that problem was due to Arizona's defensive line calling out Utah's cadence, he said he was disappointed that the team wasn't able to adjust sooner. One-time walk-on and now scholarship player Lo Falemaka is listed as the current starting center. On the left, Isaac Asiata will likely start at guard and first year starter Garrett Bolles at tackle. Starting for the second season at right guard and the only offensive lineman to play all 400 snaps is junior Salesi Uhatafe, and Sam Tevi will be at guard. Tevi played defensive tackle as a freshman before making the switch to offense in 2014. He has played 399 snaps and has not allowed a sack (if only...).
In addition to the loss of Devontae Booker to the NFL, the injury bug and other issues has started quite a game of musical chairs at the running back position. They have had two key injuries already this year, with Armand Shyne suffering a season ending ACL tear against Arizona, and freshman starter Zack Moss getting banged up October 1 in Berkeley. There have been no updates to his status since, and he is currently listed as the #1, so we will see if he returns Saturday. Utah started three running backs last Saturday against Oregon State: Joe Williams, who returned to practice Tuesday after 30 days away from football (he had announced his retirement following their contest against BYU); Cory Butler-Byrd, a receiver by trade who was suspended for the first two games of the season with legal issues and last carried the ball regularly as a freshman in junior college; and Devontae Henry-Cole, who came out of redshirt status and ran once for 2 yards. Williams showed some fatigue in the second half, and was held to only 37 yards. Kyle Whittingham says that Williams’s return is a "huge blessing" for the team, and their 12-0 halftime lead would not have been possible without him. Utah had been used to a solid stable of running backs, and is now struggling to maintain healthy athletes.
In addition to the injury bug, one Utah player had legal issues and a life changing incident. Receiver Cory Butler-Byrd was arrested back in August for jumping on a police car and damaging a building, to which he plead no contest. He had been suspended indefinitely but was reinstated back in September. He didn’t travel to Berkeley for the Cal game earlier this month, and according to Butler-Byrd, "The most important reason I didn’t go play at Cal is because my kid was born. It felt good. It gave me a lot more motivation to go a lot harder." Between that and an oblique injury, Butler-Byrd elected to stay behind as the team travelled. He is now working his way back onto the team and leads the team in yards per catch (18.4) and is second in receiving yards per game (61.3). Senior Tim Patrick has missed 17 games with injuries in his three seasons at Utah and was limited this year in spring camp. He has started in five games this year, missing the Arizona game due to injury. He ranks second in the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game (85.8). Sophomore Raelon Singleton has played in six games with five starts this year and is second on the team in receiving yards (271) and catches (17) with one touchdown. He had a career-high 98 yards on seven catches against California on October 1. I think this is the part of Utah’s offense that is going to give the Bruin defense the most trouble. Our secondary is definitely going to get a workout, and pressure on the quarterback from our front seven will hopefully minimize the damage these guys can do.
I’m still in disbelief that we are 1-3 in conference play. The fact that we are at the bottom of the South is disheartening, and I feel the worst for our defense. We can easily contain Utah and keep their scoring at a minimum. The question is always the offense—can we score enough points to win? Our record speaks for itself right now.