Utes, with ‘no identity on offense,’ are searching for answers after loss to ASU

Utah’s 265 yards of total offense against Arizona State was the team’s lowest output since 2014.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) remains on the ground after being tackled during the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, October 21, 2017.

Kyle Whittingham was in the middle of an answer when his thoughts took a quick detour.

Following Utah’s 30-10 loss at home to Arizona State Saturday afternoon, Utah’s head coach was speaking about the effectiveness of ASU running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, who’d just given Utah’s defense fits. Somewhere in the midst of providing his analysis on how well the opponents schemed offensively, Whittingham changed course.

“Right now we’ve got to get an identity on offense,” he said. “Right now we have no identity on offense.”

Not what any coach wants to say seven games in, not what any players want to digest seven games in, and not what any fans want to hear seven games into a season now replete with question marks.

In a month’s time, the Utes (4-3, 1-3) have gone from unbeaten — with aspirations of contending for a Pac-12 South title — to a three-game losing streak, and as Whittingham noted, have no answers for their ongoing offensive woes.

“It’s a little bit disjointed,” Whittingham said. “There’s not a lot flow to the offense and offense is [about] rhythm. You need to get into a rhythm, and we can’t seem to get into a rhythm on offense.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) gets frustrated as he talks with teammates during third quarter of the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, October 21, 2017. Arizona State Sun Devils defeated Utah Utes 30-10.

Since starting conference play on September 22, Utah is averaging a mere two offensive touchdowns per game. The 265 yards of total offense against Arizona State was the lowest output since 2014.

What began a few weeks ago as worries of red-zone inefficiencies have morphed into larger-scale problems. A week after running back Zack Moss had a career high 141 yards on 20 carries, he had 49 yards on 12 carries in the loss against the Sun Devils, but had just four total rushing attempts in the first half.

Utah’s longest play from scrimmage against ASU was just 17 yards, the first time in 2017 the Utes didn’t have a play over 20 yards. The 110 yards on the ground Saturday were the lowest output since October 2015.

“I’d like to see us get good at one thing, for starters,” Whittingham said, “and build from there.”

In his first start since suffering an injury to his throwing shoulder a month ago, quarterback Tyler Huntley threw four interceptions and never got the offense going. He said the entire offense missed assignments and failed to execute throughout the day.

“We came out, we wasn’t assignment sound and that’s what happened,” he said.

After the loss, Whittingham was asked if Huntley, who was not operating at 100 percent, will be the starting quarterback moving forward.

“There’s no way to answer that question right now,” Whittingham said. “We have a lot of things to evaluate, look at, so can’t answer that right now.”

And did he ever consider going back to senior Troy Williams or even Cooper Bateman?

“Like I said, we’ll have to evaluate and see where the breakdowns were and what the cause for our ineffectiveness was and go from there,” Whittingham added.

It’s a familiar tune.

So, in a sense, the Utes are back to the drawing board in the middle of their annual Pac-12 grind. Next up are the Oregon Ducks, who also happen to be riding a three-game losing streak of their own. Whittingham shouldered the blame after the loss to ASU, saying the coaching staff aren’t getting the job done.

“We’ve got some work to do,” he said. “We’re in a tough spot right now and we’re down and we need to pick ourselves back up and fight our way out of is — or not. That’s the two alternatives right now.”