Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Josh Yuen, football beat writer for The Daily Californian, and Sammy Mora, assistant sports editor for the Daily Utah Chronicle. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. All statements were made on Sunday, Oct. 20.
Josh Yuen: Utah was favored by a ton of analysts to win the Pac-12 South. Early on in the season, there was the loss down in LA against USC. What’s been the biggest difference between the team that played against USC and the team that’s won it’s past few games since then?
Sammy Mora: The biggest difference I think is going to be how our secondary is playing. The secondary was not good at all against USC and they shut down Washington State the next week — held them to the lowest amount of yards they’ve had all season. So, it’s night and day as to what has happened since that USC game. I think they also learned that they can’t put the whole game on (quarterback) Tyler Huntley’s back. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it for the rest of the season — he’s only one man and he can only do so much.
JY: The defense is putting up numbers for the season that are very, very impressive — obviously with the performance against Jayden Daniels and the Arizona State offense this past weekend, too. The hype is around (defensive end) Bradlee Anae and (linebacker) Devin Lloyd, but what do you think is the biggest key to you as to the defense putting up the numbers it has so far?
SM: I think it all comes back to our defensive line. All of those guys on that line are going to be next level guys. Bradlee Anae, (defensive tackle) Leki Fotu, they will probably be taken in the draft this year. They are insane. I cannot say enough good things about them. And then next year, Utah has such a deep defensive line that they’re playing sophomores and freshmen that are just getting in there and taking major reps and making big plays. The defensive line for Utah is so deep, and I think that carries over into the rest of the defense. If our defensive line plays well, our linebackers play well and then our corners play well, and then our safeties play well. Everything is based off of that defensive line, and if that struggles, most of the other aspects struggle as well, to a certain extent.
JY: The last time Cal played Utah was here in Berkeley, and (running back) Zack Moss was stuffed at the 1-yard line a few years ago. It’s safe to say he’s come a long way since then. Can you talk about how important he is to the functioning of Utah’s offense as a whole?
SM: I like to refer to Utah’s offense as a three-headed monster at times. Because it really is that. You have Moss on one head, and he’s now the all-time leading rusher in school history. He’s a freight train and it sometimes takes two or three people at any given time to bring him down. And then you have Tyler Huntley, not only as a quarterback in passing but also fleeing the pocket and running around — he’s very elusive. And then you also have the wide receiving core. They have such a good core that can’t just key in on one guy. Every different week there’s been a different leading receiver for the team. So I think it’s very much a three-headed beast and if one part of the offense isn’t having a great game, the other side tends to pick it up a lot. Moss is a key part to the offense, but I think even when Moss has been down with injury this season, it doesn’t really matter who’s in at running back because Utah will find a way to get the yardage that they need.
JY: You touched on the receivers core being a versatile group. In terms of both consistency and being Huntley’s favorite target, is it Bryan Thompson? Demari Simpkins? Who stands out the most during clutch situations at the wideout position?
SM: You can make an argument for either one of them. Simpkins, Huntley and Moss were all high school teammates and they all have been playing together for such a long time. But Thompson has really broken out this year and has done a really good job of separating himself from the other receivers on Utah’s team. It’s kind of a game-to-game situation and scenario. It depends on whoever (Huntley) hits first, that’s who is most likely going to be his leading receiver for the game. But I think you can’t just say that one is more important than the other one.
JY: One of the biggest questions going into this week is the health of Tyler Huntley. We know that Jason Shelley finished out (last week’s) game. I know it’s early, but what do you think Huntley’s status is for this week and what can you say about some of his backups as a whole?
SM: Coach Whitt’s presser is (on Monday). But what I can say is that Jason Shelley is the dude. He’s phenomenal in some aspects and in other aspects he has room for improvement. He carried the team through the Pac-12 championship and even into the Holiday Bowl last year. And even in the last two games last year, the outcomes weren’t what we expected — he still showed a lot of potential. I like to bring it back to the last quarter of the BYU-Utah game, when it looked like BYU had that game in the bag. Shelley took that team and won the game in a matter of a quarter. He’s very similar to Tyler Huntley in the aspect that he’s a dual-threat: he knows when to escape, he knows when to run and he can make the downfield throws. And just like Huntley, he has a high school teammate who’s on the team. (Wide receiver) Jaylen Dixon played high school ball with Jason Shelley, and whenever Shelley’s in at quarterback, there are sparks flying between the two of them and it’s really good to see. Our other quarterback is Drew
Lisk, and I haven’t seen a lot of Lisk because he used to be our scout team quarterback and then he got a scholarship and got promoted. So we haven’t seen a lot of Lisk but he has been playing really well in practice according to Coach Whittingham. If Huntley isn’t able to go, according to the depth chart, it would be Lisk’s show, but Shelley be the safer bet in my opinion because he’s played in those big-time games.
JY: What do you think is going to be Utah’s biggest key to success in taking down Cal this weekend?
SM: Keeping the ball safe. We had four turnovers on Saturday, but we still managed to win the game. Whitt says it all the time, that the key to winning is to keep the ball safe. It was very uncharacteristic on Saturday to see both Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss both fumble the ball. That’s something we haven’t seen in a while. And then Huntley also threw his first interception of the season, so that was really weird to see because we’re so used to seeing him be so accurate and making smart reads. Keeping the ball safe is going to be the key part to keeping Utah in the game
JY: I know it’s early in the week and there are some health questions on both sides, but do you have an early score prediction or a sense of how you think the game is going to go?
SM: I think Utah is going to win. I don’t think it’s going to be as close as I thought it was going to be at the beginning of the year. If this game was played week three or week four with a Cal team that is healthy and hasn’t suffered that many injuries, I think it’s a really close game. I still think Cal keeps itself in the game. I don’t have a score prediction off the top of my head, but I think it’s going to be close. It’s going to be close, but also not as close as the score says it will be.