Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, October 23, 2016 at 9:49 PM
The Utah Utes took a big step forward in the Pac-12 race when they rolled up a 52-45 win over UCLA. The win puts Utah in a tie for first in the Pac-12 South and they control their own destiny for reaching the conference championship game. While Washington is the decisive (-200) favorite to capture the Pac-12 crown, Utah’s 11-4 price tag isn’t far behind.
The toughest part of the Utah schedule is still ahead though and it begins next Saturday with a home date against Washington. The Utes are a (+10.5) dog on their homefield. And while much of that is due to the respect the Huskies have earned in the betting market with their blowout wins over Stanford and Oregon, the number also indicates that Utah doesn’t have a lot of a believers.
To understand why Utah doesn’t inspire the general public, we have to look at the way they win. They’re what you’d call an old-school team. The passing game is nothing special—quarterback Troy Williams has a mediocre 56% completion rate and his 7.5 yards-per-attempt is good enough, but nothing spectacular at the college level. None of this receivers average more than three catches per game and none have established themselves as real big-play threats.
Even the running game itself is fairly conventional. While the dual-threat quarterback is all the rage around the country and it’s not unusual to see the QB as the first or second option in the running game, Utah has three backs that have split the load in a standard ground attack. As to how it’s working, maybe you should ask UCLA—one of those backs, Joe Williams, ran wild for 332 yards on Saturday and is averaging nearly seven yards a pop on the season.
Ultimately, defense is what makes Kyle Whittingham’s team go though. The offense ranks only 58th in the country in points scored and other than Saturday’s outburst, its main trait is to control the tempo of the game and avoid mistakes. The defense ranks higher, 33rd in the country and they control the point of attack with playmakers like Hunter Dimick, Filipo Mokofisi and Pasani Tasini, all of whom have demonstrated the ability to create havoc in the backfield.
What Utah has been iffy at is covering pointspreads. The straight-up record is 7-1, but that includes three ATS losses. The Utes lost outright at Cal, 28-23 as a (-1.5) point favorite. Utah had non-cover wins, BYU 20-19 at (-3) and Oregon State 19-14 while giving (-7). Those games not only cost Ute backers money, but the final scores illustrated the risks of giving points with a defense-oriented team that struggles to score quickly.
Moving forward we have to find out if the big 52-point outburst against UCLA was the anomaly it currently appears as, or a sign the Utah offense is about to start churning. The team the Utes have been is a good one. But if they’re going to compete with Washington—both next week and in a potential Pac-12 Championship Game, and cover spreads in big divisional games like Arizona State and Colorado further down the road, then Utah will have to increase its offensive firepower.