Monson: Blame Kyle Whittingham for Utah's offensive stagnation

This offense looks a lot like last year’s, and the year before that and the year before that and ...<br>

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham watches during the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, October 21, 2017.

It’s blown past the point of being any kind of coincidental.

Great offense and Utah football mix about as well as … oh, I dunno, peanut butter and marinara sauce, onions and cherry pie, chocolate sprinkles and liverwurst.

They just do not blend, do not go together, not under master chef Kyle Whittingham.

That cake don’t bake.

Whittingham is a smart, detail-oriented man and a good coach who has taken the Utes through a difficult transformation from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. That’s what makes it tough to fully understand. He’s observant and aware. He’s done so many things right leading Utah’s program.

Offensive firepower isn’t one of them.

Utah is where offensive coordinators go to die, or to get promoted from a Big Sky school, or to get fired or shipped away or tarnished or turned off or replaced or dispatched down a back alley.

Shortcomings in the offensive attack have occurred every year the Utes have been in their new league, and even before that. You know the names, the bodies scattered hither and thither: Andy Ludwig, Brian Johnson, Norm Chow, Dave Schramm, Dave Christensen, Dennis Erickson, Aaron Roderick, Jim Harding, and …

Et tu, Troy Taylor?

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune New offensive coordinator Troy Taylor shouts some instructions during Utah football practice, Thursday, March 9, 2017.

Taylor came to Utah much ballyhooed for his innovative play-calling at Eastern Washington, after coaching high school football in California. His is not an extensive resume, and his time with the Utes has been short.

Every Ute OC’s time is short.

Perhaps more games, more seasons will be a friend to Taylor, but that’s not generally the way things have gone around here. The only thing shorter than the time for Ute offensive coordinators has been the leash tied to the collar around their neck.

Whittingham’s approach to offense is from a defensive position. His orientation is that he loathes it. He wants to stop it. If his own attack helps him win … well, then, he tolerates it. If it doesn’t help him win, he blames it for screwing everything up.

Under further review, it’s traceable, really. It’s part of his football indoctrination and heritage, as the son of a defensive coach, a longtime defensive coach himself, a guy who played linebacker, who coordinated defenses. He wants his offenses to help him win, but In the split-second he sees a 50-yard pass completion, his natural, initial reaction is to flinch and swear. It makes him break out in hives. It flies counter to the core of what’s made him successful as a football philosopher.

And no matter who is, at least in title, running the Utah offense, that defense-first influence is felt.

This year’s offense is different from what’s been seen in the past. Whittingham correctly noted that “the numbers are a little better than they were last year.”

But not by a whole lot.

So far this season, the Utes rank 10th in Pac-12 scoring offense. Last year, they were eighth.

This season, they are seventh in total offense. Last year, they were seventh.

This season, they are seventh in rushing offense. Last year, they were third.

This season, they are sixth in passing offense. Last year, they were ninth.

This year, they are 10th in passing efficiency. Last year, they were 10th.

Go back two years, and the numbers are about the same:

Ninth in scoring offense, 11th in total offense, fourth in rushing offense, 11th in passing offense, 10th in passing efficiency.

Go back three years:

Eighth in scoring offense, 12th in total offense, third in rushing offense, 12th in passing offense, ninth in passing efficiency.

Go back six years …

Ninth in scoring offense, 12th in total offense, seventh in rushing offense, 12th in passing offense, ninth in passing efficiency.

It’s remarkably consistent. And never particularly good.

The offensive coordinators have spun in and out. The players have come and gone. The seasons have changed.

The head coach has stayed the same.

After the Utes were blown out by Arizona State on Saturday, Whittingham bemoaned his offense’s showing, its inability to sustain drives and finish them, its turnovers. He also ripped his run defense. If Utah cannot count on its defense stopping the run, then what on God’s green turf can it count on?

Some have criticized Utah’s coaches for going with Tyler Huntley in that loss, as opposed to Troy Williams, an ironic twist considering the number of folks who had claimed that if only Huntley had played against Stanford and USC, the Utes would have won those games.

Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) passes the ball against Arizona State in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

It was obvious, those critics say, that Huntley wasn’t healthy against the Sun Devils. If that is, in fact, true then Whittingham deserves every bit of that criticism. But it also could be that Huntley simply was playing a better opponent. It’s hard to believe, after consulting his medical staff and with Huntley himself, that Whittingham would have gone with a badly compromised quarterback over a fully healthy one — at least if he didn’t think the compromised talent still would give his team a better chance at winning than the less-talented sound one.

Either way, the offense labored heavily, scoring all of three points — until the final minutes, when a solitary touchdown carried absolutely no weight in a lopsided game.

In the aftermath, Whittingham said the Utes, who threw 35 passes for 155 yards versus 25 runs for 110, went away from the ground game too early.

This week, Utah plays at Oregon, a great place for any offense to get well. The Ducks have given up 113 points in their last three games combined. Perhaps the Utes will bounce back after three straight defeats in which they averaged fewer than 20 points.

Beyond that, maybe the offensive numbers really will improve. Maybe this is just the beginning of a long tenure for Taylor, who actually will be allowed to make a difference as coordinator. Maybe Whittingham will go against his very nature and emphasize offense, maybe recruiting it, maybe embracing it, maybe insisting on making it a strength rather than an afterthought.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

It’s just that, if the past and present foretell the future, it ain’t the way to bet.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.