There were some pretty big names on the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday night for Utah’s season opener against Utah State; Travis Wilson, Kelvin York, Chuckie Keeton, Jake Murphy and Trevor Reilly, to name a few.
But it was a redshirt freshman kicker who changed the entire complexion of the football game with a few swipes of his leg, helping Utah to a 30-26 win over Utah State and avenging last year’s overtime loss in Logan, Utah.
Andy Phillips nailed his first career field goal -- a 45-yarder late in the third quarter -- that ended seven consecutive scoreless drives for the Utes. Utah had jumped out to a 14-3 first-quarter lead, but was trailing 23-14 by the time Phillips stepped on the field. His kick made it 23-17 and gave the Utes a little bit of momentum.
That little momentum turned into a lot when on the ensuing kickoff, Phillips executed a perfect, straight-ahead onside kick which the Utes recovered. The gutsy call caught the Aggies off guard and five plays later, Karl Williams was plowing ahead from 2 yards out to give Utah a 24-23 advantage.
Phillips added a 19-yard field goal with 6:38 left that put Utah ahead 27-26, and he hit again with 19 seconds left from 38 yards out for the final margin.
“The play of the game was the surprise onside that we were able to recover,” Whittingham told FOX Sports 1 after game. “That gave us huge momentum. We have a lot of work to do. We are an average football team right now.”
While Phillips’ leg may have saved the Utes, it was the legs of Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton that gave Utah’s defense fits all game despite a strong effort from Reilly and fellow defensive end Nate Orchard. Keeton threw for 315 yards and 2 touchdowns while rushing for 84 yards and a score.
The Utah offense, operating for the first time under the watch of co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, looked very much like an offense playing in Week 1. There were pros, like the production from Wilson and the running backs, and cons, like the two fumbles and the inability to score on three-straight runs in the fourth quarter from the Utah State 3-yard line.
Still, Wilson threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns on 17 of 28 passing, well above Utah’s average passing production last season of 190.7 yards per game -- which was the worst in the Pac-12. Williams, a change-of-pace back to York and James Poole, rushed for 45 yards and the Utes' lone rushing score.
The Utes marched 80 yards on eight plays in their opening drive, capping it with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Dres Anderson. Wilson also hooked up with tight end Jake Murphy on a 30-yard touchdown.
Utah did lose wide receiver Kenneth Scott to an undisclosed injury in the first quarter. But Sean Fitzgerald stepped in and caught five balls for 79 yards. Anthony Denham led all receivers with six catches for 113 yards.
Update: The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting that Scott's injury is season-ending and Utah hopes he'll get a medical redshirt.