Kragthorpe: Utes hope Norm Chow's reunion tour is big hit
In advance of Norm Chow Bowl I, Utah's offensive coordinator is dusting off a proven strategy.
"Faceless names," Chow said this week, describing how he deals with the emotions of matchups with former employers, players and co-workers, as will be the case in the Utes' next three games.
Chow's offense is looking for its own identity.
Amid everything involved with Utah's debut in the Pac-12 on 9/10/11, for the sake of history and numerology Saturday's meeting with USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum is a major test for quarterback Jordan Wynn.
The Utes have the motivational part covered. This program has thrived with an underdog mentality, repeatedly knocking off higher-profile teams. Even if the Utes are playing at that level themselves now, their approach is the same.
"I love the opportunity to go down there and show USC what Utah football's all about," said defensive lineman Dave Kruger. "I feel like we're underestimated and I feel like USC thinks they're going to come out and just walk all over us, and that's not going to be the case. They'll find that out on Saturday."
Whether the Trojans really believe that is debatable, but the Utes have always responded well to being slighted in real or imagined ways. The biggest issue, then, is not so much incentive as actual performance.
If there was curiosity in Uteville about Wynn and Chow going into last week's season opener against Montana State, there's concern now.
The defense will play well enough to give Utah a chance to beat USC. Everything else hinges on Wynn's passing ability.
The Utes would like to believe they've played only seven percent of their season one of 14 contests, counting the Pac-12 championship game and the Rose Bowl. For anything like that to happen, Wynn's passes have to cover more than seven percent of the football field.
Wynn's 15 completions accounted for only 101 yards against Montana State, an average of 6.7 yards. That's basically how Chow's offense is designed to operate, utilizing the tight ends and running backs in the passing game. Yet some combination of his play-calling and his quarterback's decision-making took that West Coast approach to an extreme.
Utah's wide receivers caught three passes. Only two completions went for more than 10 yards. Even if John White is running well and Wynn is hitting short passes, sustaining long drives against USC will be very difficult without some significant gains.
"I've just got to cut loose," Wynn said. "It's no secret, that's what needs to happen. We've got to throw the ball down the field, get 'chunk' plays."
Chow agrees, saying it is "statistically proven" that big plays are required. Coach Kyle Whittingham has divided the blame for last week's modest passing success between Chow and Wynn, while describing himself as "much less involved" in the offense than the past six seasons, when Andy Ludwig, Dave Schramm and Aaron Roderick were calling plays.
"It's Norm's show," Whittingham said.
Chow's reunion tour begins in the Coliseum, where he coordinated USC's dynamic offenses of Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush from 2001-04. Former coach Pete Carroll wanted to promote Lane Kiffin to run the offense, so Chow moved to the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
Kiffin is now USC's head coach. So begins Chow's intriguing three-game stretch. After facing the Trojans, he will revisit BYU, where he coached for more than 20 years, and then meet a Washington team coached by Steve Sarkisian, his former BYU quarterback and USC colleague.
By then, we'll know a lot more about Chow's Ute offense and where this team is headed.