The Utes dropped to 3-4 in an ugly loss 34-10 to talent-rich, but not overtly great Cal team Saturday at AT&T Park. Utah, however, did it's square best to make the Golden Bears look like a top-ten team, when in fact, they notched their first win in conference play in their thumping of Kyle Whittingham's Utes.
The Utes' fourth loss of the season marks the latest in a series of frustrating, head-scratching losses. While the sky may appear to be falling over Ute Nation, the Utes have been in each loss well into the second half. What goes wrong for the Utes in the second half?
UteZone examines the the many ingredients that make up the recipe for what has thus far been a nightmare season for Kyle Whittingham's team.
Depth Wins Championships
Every coach talks about it. The Utes have had it at times, and those times resulted in special seasons like the 2004-05 Fiesta Bowl season, and the 2008-09 Sugar Bowl season. Traditionally strong programs like Alabama, Oklahoma, USC and Texas, always have depth, and have the chops to go out get players to fill depth charts three, and sometimes four deep.
Key injuries have magnified and exposed the Utes' lack of depth, which was good enough in the Mountain West Conference, but apparently not the Pac-12. The Utes felt they had enough depth at some positions, enough even, to compete in the Pac-12. While thin in the defensive secondary, the Ute defense has, for the most part, competed admirably for most of the season.
Offensively, however, and at key positions, the Utes fall woefully short. Obvious issues at quarterback stand out, but behind the signal caller, running back and offensive line are thin. By late in the game, the Utes are wearing down, and simply don't have the personnel to keep the playing field even. Defensively, the Utes performed admirable through the course of the season, and simply can't stand up through 12 games given the amount of time they spend on the field as a result of offensive mistakes and turnovers.
Offensive issues grow exponentially in the second half as a result.
Penalties and Turnovers
Mistakes in many forms abound for the Utes in what was supposed to be their coming out party in their first season in the Pac-12. Penalties and turnovers are usually indicators of a team that is out-manned and out-matched. Players feel pressure, and try to do too much, or gain a step against a formidable opponent that is either faster, stronger, or both.
While not acceptable for any team, much less a Kyle Whittingham team, these issues are the direct result of the increase in talent in the Pac-12; an adjustment most knew, or should have known the Utes would have to make. What observers didn't know is just how wide the gap would be.
As a member of the MWC, the Utes could survive mistakes and turnovers, overcoming them by out-matching opponents with talent, and speed. In other words, there was plenty of margin for error in the MWC. However, the Utes are learning, the hard way, there is no margin for error.
This season, however, Utah is getting a taste of it's own medicine, and at the hands of new conference opponents. The taste so far is bitter. The incessant mistakes and turnovers cause the Utes to have play from behind, taking them out of any game plan they might have had, which in turn puts more pressure on Hays, and the Ute passing game and into the hands of the opposing defense.
There is no denying that Utah's quarterback play is subpar through seven games. Neither Jordan Wynn nor Jon Hays are Pac-12 quarterbacks, and again, it's something that most knew coming in. With that in mind, the Utes needed to minimize mistakes, be resourceful and productive on defense and otherwise, play a perfect, clean game in order to have a chance.
The loss at USC was a prime example of that formula, as Wynn didn't put up star-like numbers, but did enough to stand toe-to-toe with the Trojans. The Ute defense forced three, key and timely turnovers while, by and large, Wynn and the offense held onto the ball. It wasn't pretty, but it was enough. Almost.
With Wynn out, Hays has to stop making life hard on himself, and return to form. Known as a cool character and one not to panic, Hays can be seen dancing around the pocket with happy feet as he fails to set his feet and throw. Having been pressured and hurried since the moment he stepped on the field, Hays can't gather himself enough to know whether he's coming or going.
So gun-shy is Hays that even when he has time, he acts as if pressure is coming. In fact, Hays has not been good at sensing or avoiding pressure, an adjustment he has to make, and not soon enough for his teammates. Three games as a starter may or may not be enough time for a JUCO transfer to make an adjustment, but nevertheless, it's the situation Hays finds himself in. It's sink or swim, and at some point, Hays has got to swim. So far, he's drowning.
The Ute quarterbacks are simply not good enough to overcome too much adversity, self-created, or otherwise.
This issue plays a key component in Utah's offensive woes. While Hays has issues of his own to resolve, whatever his shortcomings, the Ute offensive line is not helping matters. Along with tight ends and running backs, the Ute pass protection is woeful. Every football fan knows games are won and lost in the trenches, and the Ute offensive line is, at best, inconsistent.
More accurately, they have no identity. Early in the season, shuffling due to injury made it difficult for this unit to gel and create that much-needed chemistry. No excuses. This is the Pac-12. But with the return of Bergstrom and some sense of continuity over the course of the last three games, Tim Davis' group is not getting it done.
The Ute offensive line blocked brilliantly for John White against BYU and Pittsburgh; two lesser teams. Against higher-caliber teams, Utah has rushed for a combined 232 yards, or an average of 58 yards per game. That statistic includes a 51 yard rush by Reggie Dunn against USC and a 30 yard long against Washington by White. Minus those two plays, and the rushing production in four losses is reduced to 151 yards, or 37.75 yards per game average.
Any quarterback in the country would struggle as the central focus of a one-dimensional offense, allowing opposing defenses to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. Especially when that quarterback is below average in a quarterback-rich Pac-12 conference.
Problems up front for a unit that had questions coming into the season, despite the return of center Tevita Stevens and Tony Bergstrom, are more severe than anticipated.
Minus a run game, the pro-style offense's reliance on the play-action game suffers greatly, as the Utes have attempted five or less play action passes on the season. Both Wynn and Hays are adept at the requisite fake, and the weapon, due to a lack of run game, has been laid by the wayside.
Conversely, a quarterback's inability, or an offensive coordinator's refusal to stretch the field with down field passing closes the door on the run game, creating a vicious offensive cycle that the Utes can't seem to get out of.
With Norm Chow's vast experience at every level of football, undoubtedly, Kyle Whittingham brought Chow in to right the ship, and lead this Utah football team into Pac-12 battle. Chow should the script for how to do that, and so far, hasn't delivered.
To be fair, there is a lack of depth and in some cases, a lack of talent. It's then up to the coaching staff to put players in a position to be successful, or at least have a chance. Since Hays was named starter after Wynn went down, Chow has down little with the offensive scheme, and has not tailored his play-calling to suit Hays' strengths.
At times, Chow has called Hays' number, something he has to do in order to open up a defense and keep it honest, with decent results. Hays' rushing ability has been sufficient when it has been utilized, and at minimum, has been gained first down yardage in tough conditions with his feet. Yet, that weapon has largely gone un-used.
Previously mentioned, Chow has dialed up few plays down the field, which has become less likely, and less possible, given Hays' recent passing performance. Time to get creative. Devonte Christopher is a former quarterback, who may could catch opposing defenses by surprise with a deep pass off a trick play. Griff Robles, a former, almost quarterback once again, has a wildcat package installed into the Ute offense that might be tweaked to get a pass off for chunk yardage.
If anyone can figure out a way to manufacture a scoring drive or two per game, even under less than ideal conditions, it should be Norm Chow.
Third and Long
The much-dreaded phrase that Ute fans are hearing way too much of lately. Tying in all of the above issues, the Utes must find a way to produce positive yardage on first down and not continue to put themselves in third and long. Myriad issues notwithstanding, a successful or creative first down play is not only possible, it's mandatory. If the Utes could find a way to win the battle of the first down play, they may stand a chance. Currently, the Utes rank 102nd in the nation in first downs, and a lot of that can be attributed to rampant third and long situations.
In the rare moments all else comes together, the Ute receiving corps has had key drops in this difficult 2011 season. The drops haven't been incessant, but they have come at the absolute worst times, and were apparent once again in the defeat at Cal. With yards, and clean throws at a minimum, the Ute receivers need to be ready to take advantage of any ball that comes their way, even when not perfectly thrown.
Red Zone Offense
Utah had few opportunities to even look at the red zone Saturday, but in its previous three losses, red zone offense has not been efficient. Against MWC opponents, field goals were enough to skate by. In the Pac-12, anything less than a touchdown in the red-zone just isn't good enough. Again, this falls to Chow to find a way to call a play his offense can execute. Subsequently, it's up to Brian Johnson to coach up whichever QB is under center to do exactly that in rare red zone opportunities to do just that; execute.
With plenty of personnel and injury issues, the Ute coaching staff as a whole must step it's game. Prior to the start of the 2011 season during fall camp, Norm Chow said it himself.
"This is the Pac-12. You can't go into that league with the same scheme each and every week or it won't be good enough," Chow revealed. "These are good coaches in this league, they're better. They're some of the best in the country, and and they're great at game-planning, and they're great at half-time adjustments. So across the board, we have to be better. Not just players, but coaches."
That wisdom has come to fruition, as in several cases, the Ute coaching staff has been down-right out-coached.
What it all adds up to is the perfect storm, and the good news is that it can all be resolved. The bad news is, it's not going to happen this season.