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August 31, 2012Utah's home opener netted the expected result; an appropriately big win over their underdog opponent, despite what is becoming a characteristic slow start. For the Utes, the win wasn't much more than that.
"We did what we were supposed to do," said defensive end Trevor Reilly. That thought was expanded upon, barely, by head coach Kyle Whittingham.
"You don't always do what you're supposed to do, so the positive is that we did what we were supposed to do," he said. "Sometimes that doesn't happen."
True enough, as the Utes can rewind back almost one year exactly when they beat a Montana State club 24-7, leaving some fans scratching their heads at the closer-than-expected result, and wondering what the future held.
The Utes, however, took the approach that it wasn't who lined up against them that mattered, but rather what they wanted to find out about their own team, and accomplish all the things they set out to do.
Against a Northern Colorado team who went winless in 2011 after making the jump up to DI, wading through Thursday's result was difficult.
Finding the correct formula for distributing carries between running backs was on the priority list Thursday night, as the Utes look to avoid handing the ball off to John White over thirty times a game as they did in 2011, out of sheer necessity.
The formula, established Thursday night, saw White dance and weave his way through the Bear defense 24 times for 119 yards and one touchdown. White's performance was something no one had questions about coming into the game, and he too, did exactly what he was supposed to do.
"[John] has a whole bag full of missed tackles that he brings to each game, and he starts handing them out as the game goes on," praised Whittingham. "That's his game. He's a darter and he can change direction, and make you look pretty foolish at times."
Finally with some depth behind White, newcomer Kelvin York and redshirt freshman Jarrell Oliver got their first opportunities Thursday, rushing for 12 attempts between them. According to head coach Kyle Whittingham, Thursday's distribution might repeat itself going forward.
"I think we'll look at about 20-25 rushes by John [White], and another ten or twelve by the other running backs, a couple by your quarterbacks and then some speed sweeps by the wide receivers, and that's your running game right there," he said.
York rushed for 19 yards on five carries while Oliver turned in about the same performance, gaining 20 yards on seven carries. True freshman quarterback Travis Wilson made a splash with his legs in his debut, rushing seven times for 17 yards but scoring two touchdowns in the process.
"Jon [Hays] is still our backup, but Travis is the future so we saw a chance to get him in there for some work tonight," Whittingham clarified the quarterback situation.
Wilson had at least some idea that he'd likely get some game time Thursday, prepping last week in spread formations, much like the ones he ran against Northern Colorado.
With a new offensive coordinator in Brian Johnson, a new-ish offense and lingering questions as to the health of Jordan Wynn's much-discussed shoulders, most looked to the air to find answers about an offense that has struggled, or even non-existent at times in recent seasons.
More than answering any questions definitively or inspiring confidence, Wynn's Thursday night performance didn't create more worries, doubts or whispers. Given his injury-riddled career, that's enough for Wynn for a game one performance.
"I'll take it. I made some mistakes, but I know what I did so now I just go out and fix it. For right now, I'll take it," said a visibly happy Wynn on the field immediately following the game.
Wynn was a subdued 19-27-1 with two touchdowns, good for a 70 percent completion His sole interception came early in the first quarter, halting what had been a consistently moving drive.
"I just put a little too much air under it, and under-threw it," said Wynn of the toss that garnered him his first interception of the season. "It wasn't one of my better throws."
Whittingham called Wynn's performance "efficient", and noted that one of the team's offensive goals is to hit that 70 percent completion rate.
"What you want out of the passing game is efficiency," stated Whittingham.
Fans should expect more efficient performances out of the junior quarterback, as the Ute offense isn't so much centered on Wynn and his passing game as it is finding different, creative ways to get the ball in the hands of play-makers.
Overall, the Ute offense amassed 414 total yards, had 26 first downs and went 9-15 on third down conversions, and was 5-7 in the red zone.
In that light, Wynn's night was a success overall, if under-whelming.
One might also say that sophomore Jake Murphy also had a successful night pulling in six catches for a game-high 78 yards and two touchdowns.
Murphy downplayed the night, saying he was "grateful for the opportunity" but Whittingham indicated that, as late as last season, he recognized Murphy's talent, and thought it "under-utilized" last season.
"I've been high on Jake Murphy since he came to the program. I've been watching him, and I thought we under-utilized him last year," praised Whittingham. "Jake has exceptional ball skills for a tight end. He's got great hands, and he's a guy that's got a bright future. He's just a sophomore, so his best days are ahead of him."
With that in mind, Murphy's performance wasn't a surprise, as the Utes came into the season planning to get him more involved in the game.
Another task crossed off the to-do list Thursday was initiate Brian Johnson into the world of calling plays from the booth as a first-time coordinator.
Any time a new coordinator takes over, there can be growing pains and miscommunication. To start last season, then offensive coordinator Norm Chow experienced difficulty in getting plays into the huddle in time. Those difficulties ran through the first few games of the season, causing Ute quarterbacks to rush getting up to the line of scrimmage, and allowing less time to make pre-snap reads/changes.
Johnson experienced no such difficulties, and by all accounts, his first game day ran very smoothly, and the offense committed just two penalties, avoiding false starts which plagued the Ute offense last season.
"I thought it was good, it went very smooth. I was on the headphones, obviously, listening in and conversing with Brian throughout the game," acknowledged Whittingham. "You'd never know it was his first game as a coordinator. I thought he called a good game and mixed it up. I just thought it was a good start for him."
Defensively the Utes turned in a dominating performance, holding Northern Colorado to just 114 total yards with 79 of those coming through the air. Northern Colorado rushed for two yards in the first half, rebounding from -3 yards in the first quarter. The Utes held their Big Sky opponent to just 41 total yards in the first half.
Defensive end Joe Kruger evoked images of older brother Paul as he scampered the toward the South end-zone after picking off a Max Hall pass versus BYU in 2008. The elder Kruger was tackled by the five yard line, and fell just short of the end-zone.
In 2012, the younger Kruger picked off a Bear pass and went 24 yards the other way, capping off the pick-six.
"Getting an interception is every d-end's dream. First, I read run, so I ran out to where I was supposed to be for that, then I turned around and the ball was coming right at me," Kruger broke down his impact play. "I jumped up, snagged it and started running. I couldn't really believe it was happening."
"I think Joe Kruger is going to be a heck of a defender in the Pac-12 conference. He's 280 pounds, and he's much more stout in the run game with the added weight, without losing any of the athleticism. He's just scratching the surface of his potential, " observed Whittingham.
A dominating performance yielded the Ute defense few payoff plays, however, as the Utes came away with just two sacks for a loss of 20 yards; a smaller number than most likely expected for such a highly vaunted defensive line.
"They didn't do too many five steps and didn't give us a whole lot of opportunity to get to the quarterback," explained Reilly of the relatively small number of sacks the unit achieved. "They did three step drops and runs and one step bubble screens, so that's why we didn't see too many [sacks].