Well, it appears the Utah Utes are finally becoming a real Pac-12 team. The Utes, a team that has long staked its reputation on defense, may need to morph into an offensive juggernaut to survive the Pac-12 this year.
It’s a case of do unto others before they do it to you.
The Utes averaged just 26.57 points last year, ranking eighth in the league and 73rd nationally. By comparison, Oregon (49.5), ASU (38.4), Arizona (38.2), UCLA (34.4), Oregon State (32.5) and USC (32.1) all ranked in the top 40 nationally to support the Pac-12’s reputation as an offense-driven league.
The Utes don’t want to peg any magic number for their success, but it’s clear averaging a little more than three touchdowns just won’t cut it in this league.
“We have to be more productive this year, that was our No. 1 issue last year and our No. 1 focus this season,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
The Utes, who are coming off a 5-7 season, believe they can turn their losing fortunes into winning ones with Dennis Erickson’s revamped offensive scheme. But let’s put it another way: If the Utes are going to go bowling, they must have a more productive offense.
After years of earning a reputation as a team that relies on its defense, this year it appears Utah is going to have to lean on the other side of the ball, at least early on, until the defense catches up.
For all the problems the Utes had on offense last year, this offensive unit appears to be the strength of Utah’s squad.
The Utes return their quarterback, have an experienced running back and depth at the position, a much improved offensive line and a tight end tandem that might be the best in the conference, if not the country.
The only area that appears a little thin is receiver. But that is only a mild concern at this point because Kenneth Scott and Dres Anderson are expected to carry the workload. They are proven players.
Erickson said he believes teams need to average 30 points in Pac-12 play to be successful, a number Whittingham liked as well and believes his team can achieve.
“In this day and age in football, particularly in the Pac-12, if you don’t have an offense that can put up 30 points every week, you don’t have a big chance of winning,” he said.
So can Utah’s defense do its part and prevent a scoring frenzy on its side of the ball?
The Utes were OK in 2013, yielding 25 points per game to rank seventh in the league and 49th nationally. But a case could be made many of Utah’s struggles had to do with an inefficient offense. Utah’s defenders got little time to rest and were put in one bind after another. At some point, even the best defenses break.
This year Utah’s defense will be tested more than ever, given its youth at key positions.
There is no Star Lotulelei clogging the middle or Joe Kruger terrorizing the quarterbacks from the edge. Instead, the Utes have another strong line but question marks at linebacker and in the secondary.
Tevin Carter, a junior college transfer who was supposed to help with the depth in the secondary, didn’t qualify academically, while senior Keith McGill has struggled with weight issues. Senior linebacker Brian Blechen has been hobbled by injuries, making him more of a “wild card,” in Whittingham’s assessment than a dependable veteran.
To be successful, the Utes have to be strong in all three phases, Whittingham said.
But as defensive end Trevor Reilly said, rarely do teams hit on all cylinders. At least at the start, the Utes hope their offense delivers on its promise.
“Our offense is good this year,” Reilly said. “We say it’s a total team effort, but the reality of life is some part has to step up more; hopefully, we can all do our part. If our offense puts up 50 and we give up 30 and still win, that’s good for the fans and for us.”
If the Utes are to go bowling again, they need to win at least six games, which means they probably need to sweep the state. The best case for Utah is to start 4-0 and take a little confidence into a tough October schedule, when wins will be hard to find. The games against UCLA, Arizona and Washington State will be key to reaching the postseason.
Utah has more confidence in its offense this year, but that could dry up if Travis Wilson struggles. If the offense doesn’t live up to expectations and all the questions about the defense turn into real liabilities, Utah could be ticketed for another losing season.
Utah’s offense is going to have to deliver the goods this year. Co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson believes Utah needs to average at least 30 points against Pac-12 competition. With the weapons available, Utah could hit that mark; the question is if Utah’s defense can do its part.
3 Players to Watch
Travis Wilson, quarterback • The Utes haven’t had a quarterback survive an entire season since Brian Johnson did so in 2008. Wilson needs to show he not only has the durability, but also the leadership to give Utah some consistency at the key position.
Trevor Reilly, defensive end/linebacker • Already a vocal team leader, Reilly’s roles figure to be more crucial than ever considering the tendinitis that has hobbled linebacker Brian Blechen. Reilly will be playing both defensive end and linebacker, a role he succeeded in during the 2012 season.
Dres Anderson, receiver • Utah’s junior receiver had a big year in 2012 with 36 catches for 365 yards, but he was inconsistent at times and suffered several key drops. He needs to step up his game if the offense is going to be successful.
Westlee Tonga, tight end • The senior had just four catches for 39 yards and a touchdown last year, but he has been the talk of fall camp as he has stepped up his game. He gives the Utes a formidable tight end duo when paired with Jake Murphy. If Tonga lives up to his billing and Utah’s offense has the variety it desires, the Utes could be a very productive group.
All times mountain
Thurs. • Utah State, 6 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)
Sept. 7 • Weber State, noon (Pac-12 Network)
Sept. 14 • Oregon State*, 8 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)
Sept. 21 • at BYU, TBA
Oct. 3 • UCLA*, 8 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)
Oct. 12 • Stanford*, TBA
Oct. 19 • at Arizona*, TBA
Oct. 26 • at USC*, TBA
Nov. 9 • Arizona State*, TBA
Nov. 16 • at Oregon*, TBA
Nov. 23 • at Washington State*, TBA
Nov. 30 • Colorado*, TBA