Utes need a cure for their third-down blues. Maybe the MUSS could help out

Offense did some good things on first and second downs in 2017, but struggled to convert on third down.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) is tackled by Arizona State Sun Devils defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood (90) and other Arizona State Sun Devils during the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, October 21, 2017. Arizona State Sun Devils defeated Utah Utes 30-10.

Ranked this week by ESPN”s Kirk Herbstreit as one of the top five student sections in the country, Utah's MUSS is known for executing the “3rd Down Jump” to intimidate opposing offenses in advance of key plays.

The MUSS may need a tradition that helps the Utes' own offense in those situations.

Utah ranked No. 99 nationally in third-down conversions last season, even while moving the ball reasonably well. As offensive coordinator Troy Taylor said, “We were really good on first and second down.”

That's true. The Utes were No. 18 in offensive efficiency, according to advanced statistics compiled by SB Nation. The criteria include gaining 5 or more yards on the first play, 7-plus yards on two plays and the necessary 10 yards for a first down on three plays.

The Utes' overall efficiency rate was 45.7 percent; their third-down conversion rate was 35.2 percent. Basically, they either recorded a first down in one or two plays or not at all. Utah converted only 62 third-down plays in 13 games, fewer than five per game.

No wonder that's something the Utes have practiced extensively in August, in addition to possessions inside the 20-yard line.


Utah ranked last among Pac-12 offenses in third-down conversions in 2017. Each team's percentage, with national ranking:

19 • Washington .454

23 • Arizona State .447

41 • Stanford .426

43 • Washington State .426

44 • Arizona .423

46 • Colorado .418

52 • UCLA .412

55 • USC .411

56 • Oregon .410

61 • California .404

63 • Oregon State .402

99 • Utah .352

Asked this week if the offense is better in those areas, coach Kyle Whittingham chuckled a bit nervously and said, “I hope so. We’ll find out. That’s been a topic of conversation around here for a couple years, so we’ll see. If we haven’t [improved], we’re in trouble. … We absolutely have practiced it a ton.”

The Utes ranked No. 79 in finishing drives, averaging 4.4 points for each trip inside the opponents' 40-yard line. Matt Gay is a great kicker, but he can produce only three points at a time, and Whittingham would like him to attempt fewer than 34 field goals this season.

Utah’s failure to deliver touchdowns is the reason Taylor is here. Whittingham fired offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick after the 2016 season. The apparent breaking point was the regular-season finale at Colorado, where three second-half trips inside the 5-yard line ended with field goals. Even a bowl victory over Indiana required Andy Phillips' four field goals. Taylor was hired the following week.

Taylor’s 2017 offense produced a slightly higher rate of touchdowns on trips inside the 20, reaching the end zone 33 of 63 times — compared with Utah’s 27-of-54 success rate in 2016. But his third-down conversions were lower than Roderick’s 38.3-percent mark.

Utah's red-zone package will be different, Whittingham said: “You tweak a little, because what you were doing obviously didn't work well. You add a few things.”

He also said the plays themselves were less of an issue than the way they were executed.