Any judgment of the offensive coordinators in the state’s three FBS programs leads to this conclusion: Utah and Utah State should meet San Jose State more frequently and BYU needs to play the Spartans as soon as possible.
The Utes and Aggies have exploited San Jose State’s No. 119-ranked defense, which will complete its health and wellness tour of Utah offenses Oct. 28 at BYU.
The arrivals of Troy Taylor at Utah and David Yost at USU, plus Ty Detmer’s supposed return to the BYU passing offense of old in his second year, created a natural statewide theme for the 2017 season. The update? Not good enough. “Uh, got some work to do,” said Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, who should be the happiest of the three head coaches.
The teams are coming off a winless weekend when they scored a combined four offensive touchdowns — including two in the last two minutes of defeats. “Everyone wants to judge it off the last game; I get that,” said USU coach Matt Wells. The broader picture is slightly better, except in Provo.
Wow. Where to begin? Maybe in 1970. That’s last time the Cougars lost five games in a row, while producing 48 points and 1,295 yards. In 2017, BYU has totaled 50 points (including a defensive touchdown) and 1,156 yards in five losses.
BYU’s offense is Kalani Sitake’s problem. That’s a 180-degree switch from 2001, when the former Cougar fullback was hired as Eastern Arizona College’s secondary coach just before the season.
“Our offense’s issues are my fault,” Sitake said this week. How to fix them is the question, with a fine line between helping and meddling for a defense-oriented head coach. Bill Belichick, for instance, once figured that with his defensive expertise, he should call the Cleveland Browns’ offensive plays. That didn’t work.
“I’ve tried to help out as much as I can with some of the issues that we’re having,” Sitake said. “I evaluate it all.”
BYU • 127th in total offense (253.5 yards), T127 in scoring (11.7 points).
Utah • 51st in total offense (430.6 yards), T53 in scoring (32.0 points).
Utah State • 87th in total offense (376.0 yards), T60 in scoring (31.0 points).
Having credited Detmer for maximizing Jamaal Williams and Taysom Hill last season and declared him qualified for the job, I won’t eat those words. But questions persist about Detmer and his offensive staff, much as with Utah’s Brian Johnson-led group in 2012. The twist is that BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe hired Detmer.
If No. 2 quarterback Beau Hoge had finished the game at Utah State, where BYU led 21-14 and was driving in the second quarter (when he sustained a concussion), and then followed through with a good showing against Boise State, BYU might be better than 1-5.
As it was, Tanner Mangum returned from his ankle injury and started nicely against the Broncos, but that opening-drive touchdown ended BYU’s scoring. Now comes Saturday’s game at Mississippi State, where the offense likely will struggle again and the losing streak will grow to six games. The cure, presumably, will begin next week at East Carolina, but the Cougars will have to win their last six games just to become bowl-eligible.
“We’re trying everybody’s patience right now,” Detmer said on the Coordinators’ Corner radio show.
Taylor is here basically because the Utes kicked too many field goals last season. Matt Gay is a phenomenal story, and there’s a lot to like about his 50-yard kicks. The 30-yarders are problematic for the offense, though.
That’s the biggest trouble with Taylor’s work. The Utes have scored 14 touchdowns and kicked 13 field goals on their 30 trips inside the 20-yard line. In a 23-20 loss to Stanford, Utah was stopped twice on first-and-goal chances. Each time, the Utes went run, run, sack, field goal.
“I’m happy with how we move the ball, 20 to 20,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to do better in the red zone.”
The Utes’ TD rate in the red zone is 46.6 percent; Whittingham’s goal is 70 percent.
Utah (4-1) may have beaten Stanford with a healthy Tyler Huntley at quarterback. If anything, Troy Williams’ return as the starter vs. Stanford validated Taylor’s shrewd, surprising choice of Huntley in August.
Darren Carrington II, who’s third in the Pac-12 with 37 catches in five games, recently described Taylor’s offense as “heaven” for a receiver. He may have used another label during the first half against Stanford, when he went without a catch, but then he caught seven passes after halftime. Carrington said he likes how “you have so much freedom to find space and get open and make a play.”
The evaluation of Taylor would look different without Carrington’s having landed at Utah in August, after being dismissed from Oregon’s program.
The scheme is “a lot different than Utah’s used to, so it’s taken some time, but [the players] really do enjoy it and they’re getting better and better,” said running backs coach Kiel McDonald, who worked with Taylor at Eastern Washington.
Yost’s fast-paced approach succeeds when the Aggies (3-3) are stringing together first downs, keeping defenders off-balance and wearing them down during drives. Too often, they’ve struggled to get that initial first down and quickly gone back to the sideline.
The pattern is well established. USU totaled 1,185 yards against Idaho State and San Jose State, but only 1,071 yards in the other four games. The biggest variables are offensive line play, with five new starters, and quarterbacking, amid senior Kent Myers’ inconsistency.
“The scheme we’re doing fits us,” Wells said. “In terms of what we’re doing, we just need to do it better, but I like what we’re doing.”
Stymied by Colorado State last week, the Aggies have six more Mountain West games, needing three wins for bowl eligibility.