Utah’s football coaches are spending part of their bye week out on the road recruiting. Unfortunately, none of the potential future Utes are eligible to play soon — like, this week.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has all but come out and said the Utes simply don’t have the talent they need to run the offense they had hoped as injuries and the failure of other players to rise to the occasion have hampered the team’s plans.
Now, with four games to go, the Utes’ hopes of being a surprise team in the Pac-12 have evolved to a battle to become bowl eligible.
To do so, the Utes must win two out of the four contests remaining, against No. 25 Arizona State, No. 2 Oregon, Washington State and Colorado.
Even that goal is a challenge for a team struggling with its offense and performing up to its abilities in road games.
So, what has gone wrong for the Utes? Call it a mix of misses and injuries.
While Whittingham refuses to use injuries as an excuse, it is obvious the loss of tight ends Westlee Tonga and Jake Murphy has hurt the Utes’ offensive options.
Now, as they head into game preparations for ASU, Whittingham has all but thrown in the towel on a fast-paced offense to try and win like Stanford — aka, win with a run game.
“That’s their mentality to shorten the game, win with defense,” he said of the Cardinal.
That the Utes would have to go that route might be effective, but also disappointing given the Utes’ expectations of being a high-flying, strong offense this year.
Slowly, those plans have changed as Travis Wilson’s options have dwindled. First star receiver Kenneth Scott went down with a season-ending injury, then Tonga hurt his knee against BYU and Murphy suffered a season-ending hand injury against UCLA.
Utah simply doesn’t have the depth it needs to make up for those losses and it is showing.
Yes the Utes were able to upend Stanford, but even Whittingham said this week that part of Utah’s success might be attributed to the element of surprise since the Utes were playing without their two tight ends for the first time.
“We had some things that they hadn’t seen and it took them by surprise or they didn’t adjust or didn’t have the opportunity to make the adjustments in the game,” he said. “Since that point in time, the element of surprise has been gone from there.”
It comes down to this then: The Utes’ offense is so fragile, that the loss of two players at one position has left the Utes short on options.
Throw in a less than 100 percent healthy quarterback and a lack of receiving options, and you have the Utes where they are — in a bind.
All the deficiencies highlight a potentially disturbing thought: why aren’t the Utes making more progress through recruiting?
This year alone the Utes have several players expected to contribute who haven’t been able to do so. Receiver Andre Lewis and tight end Greg Reese are both junior college players, the kind expected to help immediately, yet they haven’t made an impact
Others, such as freshman receiver Dominque Hatfield, sophomore Geoffrey Norwood and freshman tight end Siale Fakailoatonga, are still learning their way around campus, much less in Utah’s offense.
Still, it would seem the Utes should be farther ahead by now. Unfortunately, in Whittingham’s estimation, Utah’s league foes have improved even faster than the Utes.
“We’ve got to pick up the pace and continue to improve,” he said.
As for the immediate future, the Utes must improve enough to reach their goal of bowl eligibility.
The Utes believe Wilson will improve as his injured right hand heals but they still must find some more offensive weapons and some spark in the run game.
There is also hope that Tonga will be back on the field soon too after healing from his knee injury.
Until then the depth issues are why the Utes are falling back on a familiar refrain as the season comes to a close — they have a great defense and they are going to lean on it.
“There are a lot of positives on the defense,” Whittingham said.
Grading the Utes
Offense — C- • If we were analyzing the Utes two weeks ago, they might have gotten an A, but the losses of the tight ends, a slip in the run game and inconsistencies at receiver, not to mention all the turnovers, have left the Ute ranked ninth in the league in total offense (418.3) and eighth in scoring (31.1).
Defense — B • The Utes rank just ninth in total defense, giving up 393.4 yards, and seventh in scoring defense, allowing 25.8 points, but the defensive unit has made obvious progress through the season. Creating more takeaways is still on the want list.
Special Teams — B+ • Kicker Andy Phillips is 13 of 16 in field goals and 6 of 8 from 40 yards out to give the Utes some stability at the position. Tom Hackett leads the league in punts, averaging 43.1 yards. The Utes’ weaknesses are kickoffs, with Phillips getting only nine touchbacks out of 39 kicks, and the return game, which is missing a threat like it had last year in Reggie Dunn.
Coaching — B • Utah’s coaches crafted some great game plans to score wins over BYU and Stanford, but the Utes suffered a setback by not being ready for Arizona. The coaches’ biggest challenges are ahead, as they must find a way to make Utah’s offense a threat once again.