A strand of Utah’s DNA is MIA.
Kyle Whittingham called it that “little extra” on the field. And it has several definitions, Utah’s head coach said. Mojo, swag, confidence, edge. What has been an untouchable tenant of success under Whittingham has not been in the cards the last month.
As the scuffling Utes endure another week in this now a four-game losing streak, Whittingham said he hasn’t seen any quit from his guys.
However, he added, there “just seems to be a little something missing. Got to get that back.”
But how, exactly?
The Utes (4-4, 1-4) welcome in the UCLA Bruins (4-4, 2-3) to Rice-Eccles Stadium Friday evening for a game that very well could shape the remainder of Utah’s 2017 campaign. With a schedule backloaded with No. 25 Washington State and No. 12 Washington, a win over the Bruins would work wonders for what has been eluding the Utes all month. Not to mention a vital step toward bowl eligibility.
First things first.
Beyond missing that edge that aided in Utah’s rise in the Pac-12, the most mystifying development this year has been the Utes’ inability to slow any conference rushing attack. The No. 1 rush defense in the Pac-12 the last two years is on its heels in conference play this season.
Through five conference games, Utah has allowed 1,122 yards on the ground, an average of 224 yards per game. The Utes were gashed for 347 yards in the 41-20 loss at Oregon over the weekend, the most rushing yards allowed since joining the Pac-12, and most since giving up 407 yards rushing in a loss to New Mexico in 2003, when Whittingham was Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator.
“[Oregon] threw for 69 yards,” Whittingham said. “It wouldn’t have mattered if they threw for zero yards — it would’ve been the same outcome. Because if you can’t stop the run, there’s not a whole lot else that matters.”
UCLA at Utah<br>Friday, 7:30 p.m.<br>TV • FS1
This midseason identity crisis not only has fans frustrated; Whittingham is, too. Especially because there haven’t been any answers — at least publicly — about how Utah has lost its way on both sides of the ball.
Beyond the inability to stop the run, there has also been an inability to run the ball “with efficiency and enough production,” Whittingham said. “We have other issues as well, but those are the primary issues.”
Eight games into the season, can the Utes recover what has been lost?
Utah senior defensive end Kylie Fitts thinks so. But it won’t come easy, just like much of this season.
Fitts acknowledged that the confidence of this defense has taken a blow the last few games. The Ducks, Fitts said, surprised Utah by their designed perimeter runs and the Utes didn’t properly adjust to keep them at bay. Opponents have been able to scheme well against Utah this year, which is uncharted territory for a run defense as annually stout as this one.
“We did it all last year; we did it the first four games,” Fitts said, “[so] there’s no reason why we can’t go back to that same defense. So we’re just going to go out ... and work on that.”
Strong safety Chase Hansen said individual mistakes are cascading in games, and continual mistakes against high-powered Pac-12 offenses are, more often than not, punished equally and often.
“Yeah, we can stop the run,” Hansen said, “we just end up in a game where someone’s confused or we make too many mistakes and all of a sudden we’re getting gashed. We’re more than capable of doing it. It’s just … I don’t know. We’ve just got to put it together. It’s been a struggle. We’ll figure it out.”
Struggles against the run<br>• The No. 1-ranked rush defense in the Pac-12 the last two years, Utah has been stung multiple times this year on the ground.<br>• Utah has allowed 1,122 yards in its five Pac-12 outings, which averages out to 224 yards per game.<br>• The 347 rushing yards allowed against Oregon were the most since a 2003 loss to New Mexico (407 yards).