Who should start at quarterback – Thompson or Wilson?

— Chris Samuels

The Pac-12 is a league known for quarterbacks. Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Connor Halliday, Sean Mannion, Jared Goff and Taylor Kelly (when healthy), among others, put up ridiculous passing numbers week in and week out. None of those guys play for Utah.

The Utes don’t have a signal caller on their current roster that can match the prowess of the other quarterbacks in the conference. Utah should accept this and adjust accordingly.

While the Utes might not have an elite QB, Devontae Booker is proving more and more he is an elite runner. Whoever starts as a quarterback for Utah should be the player that best complements Booker — that player is Kendal Thompson.

The game-winning, final drive against UCLA should be a template for success for Utah. The Utes ran it down the Bruins’ throats with a steady diet of Booker bowling people over and Thompson scrambling for big chunks of yardage. Utah ran the ball nine consecutive times for a total 63 yards. Following the contest, UCLA coach Jim Mora said that his defense knew the Utes were going to run, but the Bruins just couldn’t stop them.

Utah doesn’t have the quarterback to keep up with the air assaults that most every other team in the conference is deploying, so they might as well use their strength, which is on the ground.

Now, to be clear, Booker has shown the ability to run wild on a defense even with poor quarterback play, as he did against Washington State. But even though Booker ran for 178 yards against the Cougars, Utah was only able to muster up one offensive touchdown. Eventually drives were stopped, points weren’t scored and the game was lost.

It was a different story against the Bruins. Thompson was able to use his legs to extend plays and drives. It’s that ability that separates him from Wilson.

It’s not like the Utes never ran the read-option with Wilson in the game. It has been a staple of the offense since the beginning of the season, but Wilson doesn’t pose as great of a threat as Thompson on the play. Wilson has been hesitant to keep the ball leading to opposing defenses keying in on the tailback. Thompson, on the other hand, will run and run well.

When it comes to throwing the ball, Wilson is better, plain and simple. He has the stronger arm, the quicker release and he’s more accurate. It’s because of all of this that the quarterback competition held during fall camp seemed to be nothing more than talk. It looked to be Wilson’s job from the very beginning.

Things have changed.

Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen has installed an offense that features quick and safe throws. Wilson has said this is the reason that he has gone four-plus games without throwing an interception and it’s the reason Thompson was able to go 10 of 13 against the Bruins. It’s sometimes an unexciting offense, but it can be effective.

Utah doesn’t have Mariota, Hundley or any of the other Pac-12 that can drop 400-plus yards on an opponent, but they don’t need to. For the Utes to continue their winning ways, they need to play to their strengths and best utilize their greatest offensive weapon. That isn’t Dres Anderson or Kenneth Scott and it certainly isn’t Wilson. It is Booker and to be his most effective self, he needs Thompson in the game.

The Utes proved they could run right down an opponent’s throat on Saturday to win a game. Now it’s time to see how far their ground game can take them.

Thompson, it’s your team now.

r.miller@chronicle.utah.edu

@millerjryan

— Chris Ayers

Let me preface my comments by saying that Kendal Thompson’s performance against UCLA Saturday was admirable and I believe making the switch was the right move to make by the Utah coaching staff at that time. That said, Travis Wilson should be the starter next weekend against Oregon State.

I wasn’t shocked when Whittingham inserted Thompson into the game for the struggling Wilson in the first quarter, but I was shocked by the difference in play calling.

While Wilson was in the game, the Utah offense only ran the ball three times, compared to six pass attempts in their first three offensive possessions. The offensive coaching staff seemed more interested in getting Wilson hot than relying on running back Devontae Booker (who finished with 156 yards on the night) to relieve the pressure like they did with Thompson later in the game. Wilson also didn’t get much help from his receivers, who dropped a few passes and were unable to gain yardage after making a reception.

I believe if Booker had been more of a factor early on in the game, Wilson would have had easier down and distance situations and would eventually have started hitting his receivers in stride.

The simplest reason why Wilson should start over Thompson? He’s just a better quarterback.

In his roughly nine quarters on the field this season, Wilson has completed 58 of his 101 passing attempts for a 57.4 percent completion rate, 788 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Thompson, on the other hand, has completed 24 of 39 pass attempts for a slightly higher completion percentage, but has given up an interception — which led to a defensive touchdown — and seven sacks in significantly less time on the field.

Thompson is what I would like to call a “feast or famine” quarterback. We saw the feast against UCLA where Thompson continually evaded pressure from the Bruins’ front seven to make plays with his feet and occasionally his arm. We saw the famine against Michigan where he instinctually sunk in the pocket to avoid pressure only to be sacked for a big yardage loss and even threw a pick-six to a Wolverine defensive lineman. Thompson eventually started playing well late in the second quarter against Michigan but his mistakes kept the Wolverines in a game they had no business being in before Wilson was temporarily knocked out of the game.

Lastly, the Utah coaching staff should be ecstatic that they have something at their disposal they’ve been lacking since the days of Brian Johnson and Corbin Louks — a one-two punch at the quarterback position.

I have heard the quarterbacking cliché that is “if you have two, you don’t have one.” But in this instance I think the Utes can truly use both Wilson and Thompson to their advantage.

It will be much more difficult for the opposition to game plan for a proven throwing quarterback in Wilson, as well as a rushing quarterback in Thompson who also has a 61.5 completion percentage. Not to mention also having to deal with the bruising runner that is Booker and the array of big play receivers at the Utes’ disposal.

In my opinion, Whittingham should stick with Wilson as the starter for the Utes and continue to keep Thompson primed and ready for whenever the Utah offense becomes stymied by a tough defensive front seven. If Wilson continues to struggle over the next few weeks, then we can talk about Thompson starting.

t.chappell@chronicle.utah.edu

@TalonChappell

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