After Saturday’s loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl, Utah’s players followed custom, walking over to the stands where the majority of Ute fans were gathered and holding their helmets over head in tribute as the school’s fight song was played.
From there, they wormed with no particular form or decorum back across the length of the historic field to the tunnel leading to their locker room. As they did, some of them, like Star Lotulelei, walked alone, staying solemn and silent. Some walked in bunches, greeting fans hanging over the tunnel, smiling and carrying on. Most looked emotionless, neither angry nor distraught, as though they simply were clocking out after a routine day’s work at the office.
It was difficult, in any collective sense, to get a read on a team that had just fallen well south of preseason expectations, to 2-4 overall, 0-3 in the Pac-12.
More outward disappointment, perhaps, would have been expected, and maybe even encouraging for those who care about the Utes’ fate this year. Instead, there was mostly … nothing.
Perhaps, to some of the players, it seemed the same as it ever was, following last year’s familiar path to an 0-for-4 start in league. With a road game coming up against Oregon State, let’s just say there have been more optimistic times for Utah football.
One observer, who watched the whole scene unfold, said: “These guys are done.”
But, a few minutes later, Kyle Whittingham, having just left his team’s locker room, went out of his way to stress the Utes’ character, saying: “The guys played hard again, and this team has no shortage of effort or toughness. We’ve got a bunch of tough guys that fight for the full 60 minutes. However, we have to play smarter at times and have to be more productive.”
More on that last part in a minute.
Ryan Lacy put it this way: “We’re frustrated. We don’t like losing. Losing is frustrating. We’ve got to dig down deep and turn it around. We played our hearts out. We’ve just got to win. We’ve just got to win.”
If all the Utes feel the same way, straight to their cores, then they’ve got a chance to bounce back. But … how?
Whittingham repeated it a thousand times in the postgame: Utah has to get more offensive production. “It’s no secret that we have to get better,” he said. “You’re not going to win many football games scoring one touchdown. We have to do a better job on offense.”
Breaking in a new quarterback like 18-year-old Travis Wilson, in the middle of a season when the team is getting its head kicked in, is a bit of a trick. The freshman is pumped up and excited to play while some of his more veteran teammates are dragging. Meanwhile, he’s bound to make mistakes as he gets more time.
Not only will Utah’s vets have to, as Lacy said, “dig down deep,” they will have to be patient as the kid quarterback lives and learns.
But the Utes also have to find a way to move the ball on the ground. It’s what they do. It’s what they’ve done since the days of Jamal Anderson, and long before. Where have you gone, John White?
He had 44 yards and just 11 carries against UCLA, and he wasn’t utilized at all in the second half. The running back who gained 1,500 yards last season and was instrumental in Utah’s return from the edge of competitive disaster in Year One of the Journey into the Pac-12, will have to show some presence for the offense to regain the production for which Whittingham is calling.
“We have to do everything right,” said White, who looked miffed by the way he was being used, or not used.
In effect, it’s all the basics that have to improve in concert: better blocking up front, better running, better play-calling, better quarterback play, better getting the ball to playmakers. None of those improvements singularly will make the difference. Dres Anderson, for example, had nine catches for 70 yards against the Bruins, and hardly made a dent.
As for the defense, most of the self-criticism from the Utes centered on a lack of proper technique and bad tackling.
“Missed tackles,” Lacy said. “We’ve got to work on that.”
Said Whittingham: “… We were not disciplined in our pass rush lanes. We have to maintain leverage and maintain spacing, and we didn’t do that enough of the time. We have to be more disciplined in the pass rush.”
Before the details can be worked out, though, the Utes have to believe they can improve. Whether they actually do believe, whether they feel a profound and personal sense of urgency, can’t be determined by any kind of comments at this point, or even by their demeanor as they walk off the field after a loss.
It will show itself, practice by practice, game by game, week by week, through the end of November.
After Saturday’s defeat, Whittingham emphasized two things: 1) the need in the Pac-12 to “every single week, get ready to play,” and 2) that the current Utes “are a better football team than we were last year.”
The first point is certainly true. The second, we’ll have to get back to you on that one.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.