SALT LAKE CITY — It proved to be a historic football season for the Utah Utes. They won an outright Pac-12 South title for the first time and advanced to the conference championship game.
“Without question, this was a big step forward for our program,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who later added that the Utes “can line up and play with anybody in the Pac-12.”
Utah finished 9-5 overall and 6-3 in league play, winning the division by one game over Arizona State. After a 38-20 loss to the Sun Devils in Tempe on Nov. 3, the Utes finished the regular season with wins over Oregon, Colorado and BYU — doing so without starting quarterback Tyler Huntley, who sufferered a broken collar bone during the ASU game and was lost for the remainder of the season. Redshirt freshman Jason Shelley stepped in and led the late charge for the title.
The bid for a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl bid came up short, though. Utah dropped a 10-3 decision to Washington and wound up securing a Holiday Bowl berth. That game started off well, but ended with a 31-20 setback to Northwestern.
The Utes were well-represented on the Pac-12’s all-conference teams. First-team selections include right guard Jordan Agasiva, defensive end Bradlee Anae, left tackle Jackson Barton, return specialist Britain Covey, defensive tackle Leki Fotu, kicker Matt Gay, linebacker Chase Hansen, cornerback Jaylon Johnson and punter Mitch Wishnowsky.
Cornerback Julian Blackmon, safety Marquise Blair, running back Zack Moss and defensive tackle John Penisini made the second team, while linebacker Cody Barton, safety Corrion Ballard, center Lo Falemaka and defensive back Javelin Guidry were on the honorable mention list.
Injuries took a toll in 2018, with juniors Huntley and Moss both being limited to nine games. Even so, the Florida duo wound up with team highs for the Utes. Huntley finished with 1,788 yards passing and Moss ran for 1,096 yards.
“We lost 80 something percent of our offense in one fell swoop with losing those two guys,” Whittingham said. “Obviously a devastating blow. But we came back.”
Covey, who played a majority of the season, topped the receiving corps with 60 catches. The sophomore missed the Holiday Bowl after suffering a knee injury in the Pac-12 title game. Freshman Jaylen Dixon made a late surge, making half of his 32 receptions in the season-ending games against Washington and Northwestern.
The good news for Utah is that all of the statistical leaders on Utah will return next fall. Shelley (1,162 yards passing), running back Armand Shyne (512 yards rushing), wide receiver Samson Nacua (31 catches), wide receiver Demari Simpkins (26 catches) and tight end Brant Kuithe (20 catches) are also back in the mix.
The same, however, cannot be said for a majority of the starting offensive line. Agasiva, Barton and Falemaka completed their eligibility.
Then, there’s the offensive coordinator position. After two years on the job, Troy Taylor has left the team to become the head coach at Sacramento State. Andy Ludwig was hired away from Vanderbilt to replace him.
There’s room for growth in the future. Utah ranked 71st nationally in total offense (395.8 ypg) and 75th in scoring (28.1 ppg).
The all-conference selections may say it all. Utah had 10, yes 10, players on defense earn first team, second team or honorable mention recognition.
Senior linebackers Barton and Hansen proved to be a productive duo. Barton wound up making a team-high 116 tackles. Hansen, who didn’t play in the Holiday Bowl because of injury, was second with 114. He finished fifth in the nation in tackles for loss with 22.
“They are both the heart and soul of that defense,” Whittingham said late in the season, praising their production and leadership. “I couldn't ask for anything more from the two guys that we have in there."
Utah’s defense came up big in other areas as well. Anae led the Pac-12 with eight sacks. Defensive lineman Hauati Pututau added another strong statistical showing up front with two fumble recoveries.
Johnson’s four interceptions headlined the secondary. Blackmon’s 10 pass breakups also ranked among the Pac-12 leaders.
Utah ranked second in the country in red-zone defense (67.5 percent). The Utes were particularly stingy against the run, ranking fifth — allowing just 100.3 yards per game. They were 14th in total defense (315.6 ypg) and 17th in scoring defense (19.4 ppg).
The future is bright with plenty of returnees.
Besides Anae, Fotu, Penisini and Pututau, the defensive line also has contributors Nick Heninger, Pita Tonga, Mika Tafua and Maxs Tupai coming back.
Cornerback is especially stocked with Blackmon and Johnson returning. Guidry mans the nickel again. The vacancies at safety could be filled by seniors-to-be Philip Afia and Terrell Burgess.
Replacing Barton and Hansen may not be as challenging as first thought. Francis Bernard and Donavan Thompson return for their senior seasons. The Utes also have Penn State transfer Manny Bowen in the fold.
Utah's historic season also includes a college football first with Lou Groza and Ray Guy award winners being on the same roster. Gay was honored as the top kicker in the nation in 2017, while Wishnowsky received top punt recognition in 2016. He was also a three-time finalist for the award. The multiple-time All-Americans were the obvious headliners for the Utes on special teams.
Utah ranked seventh in the nation in net punting (41.10 yards). Individually, Wishnowsky was 10th with 45.2 yards per punt.
Gay, meanwhile, was third in the country with 1.86 field goals per game. The former UVU soccer player connected on 26 of 31 kicks (83.9 percent), ranking in the top 10 nationally in that category.
The Utes had a dangerous punt returner in Covey, who averaged 8.8 yards per attempt.
Looking ahead, Utah has big holes to fill on special teams with the graduation of Gay and Wishnowsky. Chayden Johnston is poised to move up to the top spot at kicker. The Utes once again went Down Under to find a punter, following a pattern that includes two-time Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett and then Wishnowsky. The newest Australian addition is Ben Lennon.
“It’s been a great run of Aussie punters, and we hope this guy is right in line with the other two that we’ve had so far,” Whittingham said.
When the early signing period opened, Whittingam said that the punting job belonged to Lennon and he needs to run and take it.