San Diego State Football: First Look At The Utah Utes
The Aztecs will look to spoil the Utes’ shot at some revenge when they head to Salt Lake City in September.
A big game for both sides.
San Diego State Football: First Look at 2022 Non-conference Opponents
One of the biggest non-conference games anywhere in the Mountain West will take place in Week 3, when the San Diego State Aztecs face the Utah Utes.
Last year’s game between these two teams lived up to the hype and expectations remain high on both sides, but will the reigning Pac-12 champions be able to make another run at a New Year’s Six bowl appearance?
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
Series History: Utah leads the all-time series, 13-12-1
2021 Record: 10-4 (9-1 Pac-12)
Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham (18th year at Utah, 143-70 overall). Whittingham is now tied with Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy as the second-longest tenured head coach anywhere on the FBS level, but 2021 marked a new highwater mark for what has been one of the game’s most consistent winners. After dropping early decisions to rival BYU and San Diego State, the Utes took off and won nine of their next ten, steamrolling Oregon in the conference championship game before falling just short against Ohio State in an epic Rose Bowl showdown.
Cameron Rising, QB
Rising’s elevation to QB1, which took place in the second half of last year’s clash between these two teams, really coincided with Utah finding a new gear last year. He completed 63.8% of his throws on the season and averaged 7.8 yards on those 320 attempts, racking up 20 touchdowns with a respectable interception rate of 1.6%. While the Utes won’t be confused with any number of pass-happy teams, he might be the best signal-caller the team has had in a while.
CAMERON RISING WOULD NOT BE STOPPED 😤 pic.twitter.com/RCIwiwaQQ4
— ESPN (@espn) January 1, 2022
Junior Tafuna, DT
Good luck if Tafuna is bearing down on you. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Taylorsville, Utah native made 11 starts in his first full year of action and became the Pac-12’s defensive freshman of the year by picking up 33 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss. Even for an offensive line as talented as San Diego State’s, he’ll be no fun to try and deal with.
𝟐𝟎𝟐𝟏 𝐏𝐚𝐜-𝟏𝟐 𝐅𝐨𝐨𝐭𝐛𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐃𝐞𝐟𝐞𝐧𝐬𝐢𝐯𝐞 𝐅𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐡𝐦𝐚𝐧 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐘𝐞𝐚𝐫, presented by @Nextiva: Junior Tafuna. 🙌
— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) December 7, 2021
Brant Kuithe, TE
What the Utes passing game lacked in explosiveness, Kuithe helped make up for by simply making plays. He led Utah with 611 receiving yards while catching six touchdowns on 50 receptions, so it should come as no surprise that he also posted an overall Pro Football Focus grade of 77.6, as well, which was third among Pac-12 tight end.
Clark Phillips III, CB
After starting 19 games in his first two years with Utah, Phillips is on his way up into the conversation as one of the nation’s top cornerbacks. He was an all-Pac-12 second team pick last year after making 63 tackles, breaking up 13 passes, intercepting two passes, and forcing two fumbles, so he’ll be a tough assignment for anyone who lines up opposite him.
Tavion Thomas, RB
Thomas transferred to Utah from Independence Community College and provides some much-needed stability to the offensive backfield, finishing fourth in the Pac-12 with 1,108 rushing yards and fifth in the entire FBS with 21 touchdowns. Interestingly, nearly all of that damage came outside of last year’s tilt against San Diego State, when he had just one carry for zero yards, though he’ll play a major part in defending the Utes’ conference crown.
You don’t typically associate Utah with dynamic offense, but the Utes finished last year 14th nationally by offensive SP+, 22nd by yards per play, fourth by available yards percentage earned per drive, and ninth in points per drive. Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig have built a uniquely ruthless machine over the last few seasons.
Having an operator like Rising, who won’t have to compete for the starting job anymore, could help them reach those high benchmarks again. They also bring back Micah Bernard (87 carries, 529 yards, two touchdowns) as the primary complement to Thomas at running back, plus all but one pass catcher who had at least 20 receptions in 2021. Between Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid (36 catches, 510 yards, eight TDs), the real strength of the passing game might be at tight end. To that end, one of the more unique fun facts you’ll find anywhere is that, according to Pro Football Focus, Utah boasted the three highest-graded tight ends in the conference and added Idaho transfer Logan Kendall to that group.
The offensive line should continue to be a stout unit, too, after doing just about everything well in 2021 (2.8% sack rate, third in FBS; 13th in opportunity rate, 17th in power success rate). Braeden Daniels was a second-team all-conference pick in 2021 and has 29 starts under his belt already, while the sophomore guard tandem of Keaton Bills and Sataoa Laumea have a combined 30 starts over the last two seasons.
The Utes defense didn’t need to operate at such a high level given how good the offense was, but they often did, anyway, finishing the season in the top 40 by yards per play allowed, points per drive allowed, and available yards percentage allowed, sack rate, and stuff rate. Like Ludwig, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley clearly has a few things figured out, too.
In losing both Mika Nafua and Devin Lloyd, though, the Utes must replace a huge chunk of last year’s havoc. Tafuna and defensive end Van Fillinger (5.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss) seem like obvious first candidates to fill in that gap and are still just sophomores, but transfer portal imports like defensive end Gabe Reid (62 tackles, ten TFLs at Stanford) and linebacker Mohamoud Diabate (89 tackles, 2.5 TFLs at Florida) should have a hand in shoring things up, as well.
That’s also true in the secondary, to some extent, where Phillips is the foundation and others like safety Clayton Isbell (62 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, three interceptions at Illinois State) could land a starting role. Cole Bishop made six starts as a true freshman, as well, establishing himself right alongside Tafuna and Fillinger as Utes of the present and future with 55 tackles, nine TFLs, five pass breakups, and three sacks.
There are plenty of reasons to be bullish about the Aztecs’ chances to hold on to the West division title, but this won’t be the same Utah team that they caught at just the right time a year ago. Rising will play all sixty minutes, for one, while Thomas will also factor in where he didn’t. Utah won’t be able to run away with it, but the Aztecs may not have the firepower to match them on the scoreboard.
Utah 33, San Diego State 24