Maybe the scent of blood in the water was simply too strong.
The Utah Utes’ defense had begun with two three-and-outs against Idaho State, pushing back the Bengals offense for sacks and negative yards. They looked invincible. And that was when the mistakes started.
Fresno State at UtahSaturday, 1 p.m.
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While a 56-14 scoreline leaves plenty of good feelings about a performance, Utah linebacker Jason Whittingham spent Monday afternoon’s rap session with the media talking about what the defense could’ve done better. It ranged from overpursuit, to missing gap assignments, to freelancing.
But the problems can be fixed, he said — an important distinction considering a Fresno State team that lies just ahead.
"It’s not a physical thing," he said. "It’s more of a mental issue about guys needing to do what coaches tell us to do. It’s more of a technique issue, and an assignment issue."
Strict adherence to assignments is critical as Utah prepares for what might be considered its "real" season opener. There was never much danger of losing to FCS opponent Idaho State, even if there were a few things to clean up.
The Bulldogs (0-1) didn’t appear to be much of a threat in their season opener against USC, in which they were steamrolled 52-13. There’s some significant questions about Fresno State, too, from its two-headed quarterback situation to its defense, which was repeatedly knocked back on its heels.
But the Utes feel they can’t afford to take this game lightly, not with a more narrow margin of error.
"They’re an athletic team," coach Kyle Whittingham said. "I know they didn’t fare very well against the Trojans, but they do have good players. They’ve certainly got all our attention, all our respect."
That stems in large part from Fresno State’s reputation as a mid-major power, winning 20 of their last 27 games under coach Tim DeRuyter and nearly getting to a BCS bowl last year. It’s also a reflection of talent: The Bulldogs produced two second-round NFL Draft picks last year.
While the Bulldogs have a laundry list of adjustments to make from their second loss to the Trojans in nine months, Whittingham did notice that the running game put up 179 yards. That’s exactly an area where the Utes felt they didn’t do their best on Thursday.
Part of that, Jason Whittingham acknowledged, was the desire to pound the Bengals in a big way early in the game. It lead to some mental mistakes that aren’t typically in Utah’s defensive DNA.
"I think there was a little bit of wanting to blow them out of the water just because it was the first game of the season," he said. "A lot of it is just getting back in the swing of things. We weren’t in a real game since last November, so I think shaking off the rust had a lot to do with that."
On offense, the key may be keeping up the tempo the Utes had last week. Against Idaho State, the team got off 78 plays in just over 25 minutes of game time, averaging to roughly a play every 19.4 seconds, including touchdown drives of 32, 42 and 16 seconds.
USC had a program-record 105 snaps in just over 38 minutes last week, an average of a play every 21.7 seconds, which appeared to hold an aggressive Fresno State defense scrambling.
Quarterback Travis Wilson said most of Dave Christensen’s new offense wasn’t on display last week, and he’s looking forward to showing off a little more on Saturday.
"It can always get better, but I definitely felt like we were catching Idaho State out of their defense a little bit," he said. "They were still getting lined up at times when we were snapping the ball. Definitely an advantage there, but we can still get faster."
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