Utah football: Euphoria short-lived, Utes face tough road ahead
The Utah Utes are still enjoying the euphoria of beating BYU for a fourth straight time. But as they head into the bye week, they promise not to let the victory inflate their egos.
This is the Pac-12, after all, where nothing but rough road lies ahead.
The Utes have less than two weeks to prepare for the toughest 4-week stretch they've ever faced. The gamut starts with an Oct. 3 game against No. 13 UCLA, followed by a visit from No. 5 Stanford, then road trips to Arizona and USC.
It is a daunting schedule, particularly for a team that has started 0-4 in league play in each of the last two seasons.
Knowing that history, the Utes say, is helping them stay humble.
"We are taking the BYU win as a win against BYU," linebacker Jared Norris said. "Facing UCLA is a separate week. We want to be confident for them, but not overconfident. We still have to come to practice and be ready to put in the work."
That said, the Utes are encouraged about the future thanks to their recent efforts.
Against BYU the Utes proved they could produce sufficient enough offense to beat a solid Cougar defense. Meanwhile, their own defense showed marked improvement, particularly in the secondary.
The Utes unveiled a new wrinkle by starting senior Mike Honeycutt at nickel, then unleashed the speedster on BYU quarterback Taysom Hill.
The blitzes worked. Hill was sacked five times two more sacks than the Utes managed in the Utah State and Oregon State games combined.
"We had a lot more pressure up front and that was good to see," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
While the Utes won't have the surprise of Honeycutt in that role going forward, they will have improved play elsewhere particularly at the corners where Whittingham spent much of the week working alongside corners coach Sharrieff Shah in schooling senior Keith McGill, junior Davion Orphey and the other corners.
The sacks were as much in part due to the pressure up front as the play in the back, Whittingham and Norris said.
"When the corners are playing like that and we are getting pressure, we can stop most teams," Norris said.
This, however, is where reality comes into play.
Stopping Hill is one thing, but shutting down UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, who is averaging 282.7 yards passing, and slowing a Stanford offense that is producing 36.7 points a game is whole different matter.
Still, the Utes like their chances now much more than they did a few weeks ago when Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton picked them apart and Oregon State's Sean Mannion beat them with a quick release laser-like throws.
"Our pass coverage is improving but it needs to continue to improve," Whittingham said. "But when we put it altogether, with the pass rush and the secondary, we can be a good defense."
Offensively, the Utes still have to work on their third-down conversions and run game, but overall Whittingham likes the way the team is evolving.
Continuing to stand out is the play of Travis Wilson, who was named the Athlon Sports National Offensive Player of the Week, and the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week, for his efforts against BYU.
Wilson threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns in the win.
Wilson didn't want to spend too much time talking about the plaudits on Monday. His thoughts were elsewhere mainly on the schedule ahead.
"We have some big tests coming up," he said. "We need to be prepared as best as we can. We're 0-1 in the league and we need to play like we did against BYU so we can get our first [Pac-12] win."
Grueling task ahead
After the bye week, Utah heads into the toughest part of its schedule. A look ahead:
Date Team Notable
Oct. 3 vs. UCLA Utah trails series 9-2 but is 2-2 against the Bruins under Whittingham
Oct. 12 vs. Stanford Teams have never played in a conference game, Stanford leads series 3-2
Oct. 19 at Arizona Wilson passed for 311 yards in last year's 34-24 loss
Oct. 26 at USC Utes saw a 14-point lead dissipate in a 38-28 loss last year
Utah's record vs. Pac-12 in first four games:
vs. USC L, 23-14
vs. Washington L, 31-14
vs. ASU L, 35-14
vs. Cal L, 34-10
vs. ASU L, 37-7
vs. USC L, 38-28
vs. UCLA L, 21-14
vs. Oregon St. L, 21-7