Bleeding Red: Those Utah special teams are, well, special

Corey Butler-Byrd took a kickoff to the house
Britain Covey ran a punt back like Mighty Mouse
Running one kick back for a score was a good plan
But why not run back two kicks just because you can

COMMENTARY — I wish I had Utah’s defense/special teams on my fantasy football team last week. The Utes’ fumble recovery for a touchdown, kick-off return for a touchdown and punt return for a touchdown would have netted me a lot more points than I got out of the St. Louis Rams (but given the poor performance of the rest of my fantasy football team, I would have lost even with Utah’s so help, so I should probably just let it go).

utesWhile the Ute special teams started somewhat slow in the first two games, against Fresno State Utah’s return game returned to the elite level to which we have become accustomed the past few years. I have been raving about freshman Britain Covey, both as a receiver and as a returner, but it was JC transfer Cory Butler-Byrd who first ran a kick-off back for a touchdown, followed shortly thereafter by Covey’s punt return for a touchdown.

“Britain did a great job on that punt return, he made the first guy miss and then we did a nice job of setting the wall up,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham after the game. “Corey Butler-Byrd did that all on his own. He did a great job. That was a great individual effort.”

Cory Butler-Byrd (16) is congratulated by defensive back Bobbie Hobbs (1) after returning a kickoff for a touchdown against the Fresno State Bulldogs in the fourth quarter at Bulldog Stadium. | Photo courtesy Utah Athletics
Cory Butler-Byrd (16) is congratulated by defensive back Bobbie Hobbs (1) after returning a kickoff for a touchdown against the Fresno State Bulldogs in the fourth quarter at Bulldog Stadium. | Photo courtesy Utah Athletics

Plays like those two have major impact on a football game, a fact not lost on Whittingham.

“That’s team football,” he said. “The more ways you can put points up the better. We’ve been blessed with dynamic returners for a number of years. Finally, we started to see some real signs of momentum changing like juju plays.”

The Ute defense has also proven to be solid, at times spectacular, but still showing the occasional lapse. I’ll take it. The defense is doing its job and is holding opponents to an average of 18.3 points per game. If the defense can consistently hold Pac-12 teams to less than 19 points per game, then Utah will win far more games than it loses in Pac-12 play.

In all fairness, Utah’s offense has been doing some good things. The Utes have established a sound running game, and have proven to be effective in converting fourth downs (6 of 7 thus far). If you take away the three touchdowns scored by the defense and special teams against Fresno State, then Utah’s offense has scored exactly 24 points in each of the first three games. If the offense can consistently score at least 24 points per game in Pac-12 play, then again, the Utes are going to win far more games than they lose.

However, not surprisingly, Utah’s Achilles heel continues to be its offense. Kendal Thompson started at QB for the injured Travis Wilson. Thompson was effective, completing 19 of 25 pass attempts for 159 yards, a touchdown and an interception, along with 10 runs for 31 yards. However, I just don’t get the feeling that opponents perceive the Utes’ passing attack as a threat. Until Utah can prove it has a passing game for which opponents have to account, teams are going to continue to stack the box and make it difficult for the Utes to sustain a running game.

Now I don’t want to go all Chicken Little about the sky falling in on Utah’s offense. Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes. We all do good, and sometimes even great, things, even though we occasionally (or often in my case) fall short of our potential. Football, and in particular the Ute offense, is no different. While it is easy to sit back and nit-pick a play here and a play there, at the end of the day I simply can’t dispute the results. Utah is still undefeated, ranked No. 18 in the AP Poll and No. 17 in the Coaches Poll.

One of the teams ranked ahead of the Utes is the Ducks (currently sitting at No. 13 in both polls). Coincidentally, Utah opens Pac-12 play this weekend on the road in Eugene against a very good Oregon team.

Kendal Thompson
Kendal Thompson

It remains to be seen who the starting QB will be on Saturday, Wilson or Thompson. Like Yogi Berra so famously said, “it’s like déjà vu all over again,” as we saw a similar see-saw battle between Wilson and Thompson last year.

Neither player was available to the media at Monday’s press conference, which is extremely rare.  Typically the starting quarterback is one of three players at the press conference which only highlights the cloak and dagger game utilized by Whittinghan as to who the starting quarterback will be in Eugene this Saturday.

“Going forward we still don’t know what the situation will be,” Whittingham said. “We’ll have to take a look at Travis in practice, and we may not have a decision until Wednesday or Thursday.”

The Ducks may be good, but they are not invincible. At the risk of ascribing too much importance to a single game, at this point the Utes still control their own destiny in Pac-12 play, and a win against Oregon would go a long way toward setting Utah up for a run at the Pac-12 championship.

This week’s gee whiz fact is that the Utes have lost all three coin tosses to start the game, yet they remain to be undefeated when it comes to actually playing the game. Here’s hoping Utah loses another coin toss in Eugene on Saturday, but comes home with another win to stay undefeated and upwardly mobile in the polls.

Bleeding Red is a sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

 

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