Five questions: The Salt Lake Tribune’s Kyle Goon on Utah

Utah enters this Saturday’s matchup with UCLA as the co-leader in the Pac-12 South, but the Utes have a tough schedule ahead and several key injuries weighing them down. At the beginning of the season, this game looked like one that would be a key factor in deciding the Pac-12 South champion. Now the Bruins need it to just stay in the hunt. The Salt Lake Tribune’s Kyle Goon answered some questions about the Utes, their growing injury report and their impressive new punter.

1. Injuries have marred Utah’s season, yet the Utes are still tied for first in the Pac-12 South. How have they been able to get by and how long will it last? 

It’s been a bit of a circus. The Cal game was the ultimate low, as four key starters were either missing or got injured during the game, and it probably changed the complexion of the match-up — Utah’s only loss of the year. If healthy, it’s reasonable to believe that Utah would be 7-0 so far (they were 1 yard shy of beating Cal). At running back, they’ve gone from a young core to the running back that retired when his starting status appeared to be threatened (see below), and they’re on their fourth center since spring. The defense has been healthier in general, until last week when they lost the free safety and middle linebacker against the Beavers. It’s awfully precarious. I think most observers believe that Utah could be out of the South running if the current injured players miss a lot of time, and ESPN’s FPI ranks them as the fourth-best team in the South. The schedule is backloaded: After UCLA, Utah still has to face Washington, Arizona State, Oregon and Colorado.

2. Joe Williams retired last month, only to come back when the team needed him with its short running back rotation. How effective can he be long-term if Utah needs him to take the lead back role? 

Great question. I’m not sure anyone views Williams as a solve-everything option. He’s been off the last month and is still getting in shape. I think Utah is hoping that he doesn’t have to take as many carries (34) as he did against Oregon State, and fellow backs Zack Moss and Troy McCormick get healthy in a hurry. Williams looked pretty good (179 yards, 1 TD) against the Beavers, but UCLA has far better athletes. He quit last time because he wasn’t prepared to go through the grind. I still question if he has the mental fortitude to pick it up again.

3. Marcus Williams and Sunia Tauteoli picked up injuries last week against Oregon State. If they can’t go this Saturday, who will it be for the Utes in those positions? 

First off, I’ll just say that I don’t think they’ll play. Williams had a brace on his right leg that looked suspiciously like the kind medical professionals use for ACL injuries, and Sunia Tauteoli was carted off. Neither is on the depth chart this week. The Utes will roll with safety Jordan Fogal to replace Williams, whom Pro Football Focus graded as the best safety in the country for the first six weeks of the season. Fogal doesn’t have his athleticism or ballhawking ability, but he is a sure tackler and physical. Cody Barton likely takes snaps for Tauteoli at linebacker. Barton is undersized and has had problems bringing players down on tackles, but Utah coaches like his instincts at the position.

4. For the first time in a long time, it’s not Travis Wilson taking snaps for Utah. What has Troy Williams brought to the Utes? 

Williams can stretch the field like Wilson could not. He’s patient, he can buy time, and he can make solid reads for a college quarterback. He’s relatively accurate, and he’s extremely competitive — especially when Utah is trying to mount a comeback (the Utes came back from double-digit deficits against USC and Arizona). He’s also only thrown picks in two of his seven starts. While last week was rough when he passed for 42 yards, the weather and the absence of top receiver Tim Patrick definitely hampered him. I would expect that a return to his hometown of Los Angeles and the potential return of Patrick could make for a big day for him.

5. Utah leads the conference in punting again, despite losing two-time Ray Guy Ward winner Tom Hackett. How much of a weapon is Mitch Wishnowsky for the Utes? 

In the words of Rich Rodriguez, he’s been “unbelievable.” I think you have to be skeptical when a guy comes in and coaches say he’ll pick up where the best punter in the country left off, but Wishnowsky has actually delivered. He’s not nearly as good a quote (Google “kicking bacon”) but his 49.1 yards-per-punt average leads the nation. He leads all Pac-12 punters by placing opponents inside the 10 eight times this year. In games like USC and Arizona, the Utes benefited greatly from his precision and overall muscle in the punt game, and he directly set up a safety against the Wildcats. It doesn’t seem like a huge deal until an opponent is backed against an end zone. In this game with two banged-up offenses, it could be a key factor.