SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is almost happy with his team’s offense. Almost.
The No. 24-ranked Utes have been a legitimate threat through the air in 2016, something that hasn’t happened since the program joined the Pac-12 in 2011. Utah has averaged 6.03 yards per play through three games — its highest since 2010. The passing game has netted 8.1 yards per pass with transfer quarterback Troy Williams, 1.5 yards more than in 2015.
A few issues remain that have Whittingham unsettled.
“Our deficiency in finishing drives is still there, that hasn’t been cleaned up totally,” Whittingham said. “But Troy’s starting to settle in. I think we’re executing a little bit better each week. To make us become who we want to become offensively, we’ve got to start finishing drives. That’s really the last piece to the puzzle.”
The Utes (3-0) will face their biggest test Friday in a USC team (1-2) that has more talent than the record indicates. The Trojans’ two losses came against No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Stanford.
There’s plenty of optimism in Salt Lake City with the belief Utah has an offense that isn’t completely overshadowed by a defense that’s tied for No. 9 in the country, allowing just 12.0 points per game. Williams has averaged 241 passing yards per game and thrown four touchdowns. The problem is he’s thrown four interceptions, including one in the end zone in the last two games.
Williams and 6-foot-5 receiver Tim Patrick have added a deep ball to the mix that hasn’t been present in recent years. The 6-2, 200-pound junior is one of two Pac-12 quarterbacks with at least five completions of 40 yards or more.
Williams said he’s getting more comfortable with the level of play after spending 2015 at Santa Monica College.
“Windows close a lot faster here at this level, so I have to take note of that,” Williams said about the red zone interceptions. “It’s not just turnovers. You have to go down there with a certain mentality and make sure we punch it in. Field goals are good, but we want to score points to make sure we finish teams off.”
Utah is tied for No. 111 in the country in red zone scoring, putting points on the board 71.43 percent of the time. Its red zone touchdown percentage is just 42.86 percent, No. 119 in the nation.
“We always drive the ball, but there’s always something that stops us,” said Patrick, who has four touchdown catches.
There was an expectation that the run game would regress with Devontae Booker now wearing a Denver Broncos jersey. Joe Williams struggled in two games as the starter then abruptly retired due to undisclosed injury issues.
But freshman Zack Moss has been a pleasant surprise with 153 yards and a touchdown in two games. Sophomore Armand Shyne has also stepped up with 111 rushing yards and a touchdown. Junior Troy McCormick leads the team with 178 rushing yards and two touchdowns while his six receptions are tied for No. 2 on the team.
“We needed that to happen,” Whittingham said. “With Joe Williams gone now, that had to happen.”
The Utah offense may be progressing, but it hasn’t faced an opponent with the physical talent of USC.
Southern Utah, BYU and San Diego State simply can’t compare to a Trojans program that annually puts together one of the top recruiting classes in the country.
“We know Troy (Williams) really well being from the L.A. area, just really happy for him,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “The way he’s been able to lead that team to 3-0 is extremely impressive. He does a great job getting the ball out of his hands in the quick game and the run-pass option then throws a good deep ball when they max protect.”