Los Angeles • The Utah Utes make their first appearance in the Rose Bowl as a Pac-12 member when they take on the UCLA Bruins on Saturday. Their presence in the iconic stadium raises the question: When will they make it to Pasadena for the real thing?
At the moment, such an appearance looks unlikely anytime soon. The Utes are still seeking their first conference win of the season. First place seems far, far away.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham keeps preaching patience, noting that the Utes’ transition into the Pac-12 is what he calls an ongoing “process.”
How long will this process take? Well, according to Whittingham, as long as it takes. He has been around long enough to not back himself into a corner by putting a time limit on the adjustment period.
“It’s not time to panic,” he said. “We have to keep doing what we have been doing. Our preparation has worked a lot of years, and we just have to do what we have been doing better. I don’t think it’s our approach; we just need to work hard and improve as coaches and players.”
UCLA is in its own transition period under new coach Jim Mora, but even with a first-year coach and freshman quarterback in Brett Hundley, the Bruins were good enough to earn a national ranking before losing to Cal a week ago.
As for the Utes, they haven’t made much of an impression, save for a blowout loss at ASU that was nationally televised. It wasn’t the kind of impression they were hoping to make.
The difference between UCLA’s transition and the Utah’s is that the Bruins were an established Pac-12 brand, albeit a floundering program when Mora took over.
The Utes, meanwhile, are still recruiting and still building the depth they need to compete with the top teams in the league, virtually all of whom boast multifaceted offenses.
“It’s a very talent-heavy league,” offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said. “You look around at the guys USC, Arizona, ASU and UCLA have, and they are talented players. We have them too, but the bottom line in this league is about being able to make plays and find ways to generate more explosiveness.”
For Whittingham, the incremental improvement he sees, even in losses, might be enough for now. But Utah’s players acknowledge they are getting antsy.
While they respect the go-slow reality of becoming a consistent winner in the Pac-12 — one that requires time to build talent and depth through recruiting — they aren’t interested in the future. They want to win now.
“We don’t have time,” defensive end Trevor Reilly said. “We know there is a learning curve, but the younger guys have to step up and do the little things right because we are out of time. We want to win now, the coaches want to win now, and we need to pick it up and keep going.”
The tricky part for the Utes is that their path thus far hasn’t been a smooth one. There have been glitches, detours and, most recently, a total change in direction with the offense.
Not only are the Utes adding in more elements of the spread offense — which they ran, then ran away from when Norm Chow was hired last season as offensive coordinator — but Whittingham also says freshman quarterback Travis Wilson will play more against the Bruins than he has in past games.
“He is ready,” Whittingham said. “He has shown improvement every week and has done a nice job with the ones.”
Until his late-game series against USC, when he led the Utes on a long scoring drive, Wilson was mainly used on running plays.
The thought of having a green light for more variety has Wilson confident, even as he must learn new schemes.
“We’ve got a good game plan,” he said. “We just have to execute plays, and we’ll be fine.”
Even as the offense evolves, the Utes hope their next step of improvement will include a win.
“You can’t feel happy as a player when you are losing,” tight end Jake Murphy said. “Especially in this league, when anything can happen. You have to bring it every week and get the win so you can live with yourself the next week.”
Utah at UCLA
P Kickoff • 1 p.m.
TV • Ch. 13 Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah (2-3, 0-2), UCLA (4-2, 1-2)
Series history • UCLA leads 8-2
Last meeting • Utah won, 31-6, Nov. 12, 2011
About the Utes • The Utes are still seeking their first Pac-12 win of the year after losses to ASU and USC. ... The Utes are 0-5 at UCLA. ... Receiver Dres Anderson had a season-high five catches against USC. ... Defensive end Nate Fakahafua is tied for the team lead in pass breakups (3), forced fumbles (2) and fumble recoveries (2).
About the Bruins • Coming off a 43-17 upset at Cal in which quarterback Brett Hundley threw four interceptions. ... Running back Johnathan Franklin leads the Pac-12 averaging 133.3 yards a game. ... Damien Thigpen is third in the Pac-12 averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns. ... Coached by Jim Mora, who was hired in December after Rick Neuheisel was fired following a 4-year stint.