Utah football: Utes halfway through season, reaching potential
The Utah Utes are at the halfway mark, both of their season and, they feel, of what their potential is for 2011.
The Utes, who return to conference play Saturday with a game against Cal (3-3, 0-2) in San Francisco, believe they have more potential and are a better team than their record indicates.
They hope to prove their worth to everyone else by winning out.
"We want to get six wins and qualify for a bowl game," linebacker Chaz Walker said. "But our biggest goal is to go 6-0."
Hoping to go 6-0 could seem like a farfetched goal for a team that is 0-3 in the Pac-12, but the Utes (3-3, 0-3) believe they have the skills to win out, although they acknowledge they have a lot of work ahead of themselves to do so.
The top priority is cleaning up offensive mistakes, especially in the red zone.
"That is our biggest issue right now," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Particularly in the last game, we were in the red zone four times and came away with nothing but field goals and had to punt once because of penalties. We need to score."
The Utes rank 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense, averaging 24.8 points, and are last in total offense, averaging 330.8 yards a game.
However, they believe quarterback Jon Hays will continue to settle in at the position and are encouraged by the development of running back John White.
The offensive line must improve its communication, but Utah feels the offense can still get better.
"The big thing is we have to improve our pass protection," lineman Tony Bergstrom said. "We know we need to give Jon a few extra seconds."
Utah's defense doesn't have nearly as many issues as the offense, with the Utes ranking second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (20.5) and total defense (326.5).
The defense was the catalyst in the Utes' 26-14 win at Pitt, holding the Panthers to just 120 total yards. Walker said he knows similar efforts are needed while the offense finds its own rhythm.
"We have a ton of athletes on the offense and when they take the lid off, you see what happened at the BYU game, they exploded," he said. "They know what they can do, and we trust it is going to happen."
Winning six games in a row in any league is a tough task, but working in the Utes' favor is the schedule. The only team left with a winning league record is UCLA (3-3, 2-1), which visits Rice-Eccles Stadium on Nov. 12. The remaining five opponents have a combined record of 2-15 in conference play and 9-22 overall.
Even with no wins in the Pac-12, the Utes like their chances, particularly after the way they have responded to adversity, whether it is losing their starting quarterback or getting behind against Pitt due to a series of special teams mistakes and still winning.
"It's apparent they are a tough, hard-nosed team that takes care of business," Whittingham said of his team. "We've seen that through the first six games. There is no shortage of work ethic."
Grading the Utes at the halfway point
Offense • D. The Utes are near the bottom of the league rankings in every category, and the offensive line is struggling. Losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn was a blow, but the Utes were struggling even before his injury.
Defense • A. Despite being put in horrible positions by the offense, Utah's defense continues to play well, save for the second half against Washington, when Chris Polk wore down the defense. He finished with 189 yards rushing on 29 carries.
Special teams • C. The kicking game had been inconsistent until Saturday, and the return game hasn't produced big gains like it has in the past.
Coaching • B+. The Utes knew jumping to the Pac-12 would be difficult, and the coaches are doing the best they can to cover for a lack of depth. The Utes haven't been unprepared for any opponent. Perhaps the biggest mistake was the confusion at the end of the USC game, in which the Utes tried to hurry and kick a field goal, which was blocked, instead of calling a timeout to make sure the team was set.
Utah at Cal
P Saturday, 5 p.m. MDT, TV • KJZZ