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SALT LAKE CITY — It was no secret to Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham that San Diego State had given up a lot of yards in the passing game to opposing teams this season.
In the first two weeks of the season, the Aztecs gave up a total of 557 passing yards to opposing teams — or 278.5 yards on average per game. And while a currently surging Arizona team put up 299 yards on San Diego State, it was Idaho State — an FCS team — that managed to nearly replicate the success with 258 yards in a 38-7 loss.
Conversely, Utah had only given up 210 total passing yards all season coming into Saturday (that number only grew to 270 after a 35-7 win over San Diego State on Saturday).
It’s why Whittingham spoke freely last Monday about his team needing to test the Aztecs’ defense in the passing game to see if they’d made any adjustments.
“You try to look at what other people have had success with and implement some of the same schemes and philosophies and see if they’ve got it corrected,” Whittingham said. “That’s commonplace in football, you see a weakness that somebody has exploited, you’re going to test that and see if they’ve been able to get that fixed or if it’s still a weakness for them.”
That’s exactly what Utah attempted to do on Saturday when the first play of the game was a completed pass from quarterback Cam Rising to wide receiver Jaylon Dixon for a 13-yard pickup. From there, Utah moved forward with its plan to attack San Diego State’s defense through the air, with hopes of another big night in the passing game.
The problem was Utah went ice cold on offense.
Rising missed on passes as his intended targets failed to get separation from San Diego State’s defense, and there was no consistency or flow to the offense. It all lead to stalled drives and a shutout in the first quarter of play for the first time this season.
Maybe San Diego State had figured out its defense in the passing game — or Utah was just playing that poorly.
Whittingham said the offense just “could never get into a rhythm” as the Aztecs were “slanting and moving” to confuse Utah’s offense. It worked loud and clear.
“We just didn’t hit movement real well in the first quarter and a half and just found ways to kill drives,” Whittingham said.
But everything changed on a 15-yard toss by Rising up the seam to veteran receiver Solomon Enis with 11 minutes left to play in the second quarter. It was the momentum play Utah needed, and one that proved to be the cure-all to the offense’s woes.
Rising and the offense reeled off three touchdowns — a 30-yard pass to an open Brant Kuithe, a 13-yard pass in the end zone to Enis on a vital third-and-4 in the red zone, and a 15-yard pass to Devaughn Vele to the sideline of the end zone for a toe-dragging catch and score — in the second quarter and took quick command of a game that was previously sluggish and dull, offensively.
Prior to that Enis catch early in the second quarter, Rising was just 5-of-14 passing and struggled to manufacture drives. After that, the junior quarterback had only three incompletions and finished his night early throwing for 224 yards and a career-high four touchdowns on 18-of-30 passing.
But more importantly for Utah, it was a coming out party of sorts for the wide receivers who had been tasked with being more involved in the game plan this season after failing to get many targets — most passing attempts previously went to Utah’s dynamic tight ends or to its stable of running backs. It was time for the wide receivers to be more involved.
Kuithe still led the team in receiving yards with 64 yards on five catches, but Vele, Enis and Dixon got in more on the action (11 targets) and were factors in the team scoring — Vele finished with two touchdowns and 38 yards on three catches.
It was a small step in the right direction, and one that showed that the receivers at Utah can be more of an asset in the game, Vele said.
“It’s good to start getting the recognition that we’ve been working so hard for,” Vele said. “A lot of guys in the room — it’s been hard at first trying to stay with it, but we’ve got a good group of guys. We’re a lot of selfless dudes; we understand that the team always comes first, so we just kept our head down and it was just waiting for the opportunity, and we’re grateful that we got the opportunity.
“But it’s proving a lot of people wrong. We’ve heard a lot of things about them saying the receiving corps is lacking and we can’t trust them on the outside. But once we get that opportunity, we always make sure we capitalize on that.”
The difference on Saturday, as opposed to the first two weeks, Whittingham said, is the receivers “got open, Cam got them the ball, and they made plays.”
“You see Solo Enis made a couple of nice plays and had a nice run after catch on a critical third down in that second quarter,” Whittingham added. “Devaughn Vele, I’ve been talking him up all fall camp, and you saw glimpses tonight of what his capabilities are; he’s a big play guy.”
Easy as that, right? Not so fast.
Utah is not suddenly moving to an Air Raid offense after Saturday’s performance. Whittingham maintains that the team’s “base package,” the set personnel on the field on most plays, will continue to include two tight ends — Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid — and Vele and Enis on the outside for “90% of the reps” for receivers.
“We’re not going to take those tight ends off the field; they’re too valuable,” Whittingham said.
Still, having more of an outside threat makes Utah’s offense more diverse and versatile, and Rising contends that it makes his job easier on the field.
“Just makes it that much more versatile,” Rising said. “You can hit the guys inside in the middle or you can go outside, and it just gives you that many more options. And they do a great job of making sure that they’re just doing whatever the team needs to do no matter what the situation — and just props to them. I’m glad we got inside and outside, so makes my life that much easier.”
So while the receivers had their moment — at least, a more significant one — they’re still going to be just one option under the care of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and his plan to get the ball to his best players on the field.
That will likely continue to be with the tight ends and running backs, but there’s room for the receivers to carve out a spot on the offense, too. And Saturday was just one example of how that could look this season.
“It’s not just us; it takes a whole team to get a win in the game,” Vele said. “It starts at the O-line, starts with the quarterback, the tight ends, everybody has a role in something, so we don’t want to make it too much about ourselves. But it’s really good to start getting the ball and getting a little bit more involved in the offense, because we understand we’ve got some dudes on the team, but we can also be those dudes, as well, on the offensive side.”