Two games into Troy Taylor's second season as Utah's offensive coordinator, the Utes are succeeding in scoring touchdowns on drives inside the 20-yard line.
The next issue is getting to that point on the field more than once in a game, as happened last week at Northern Illinois.
“We just weren't consistent at any position,” Taylor said after Tuesday's practice. “We weren't really bad at any position.”
Or good enough, though.
Utah's offense was responsible for only 10 points in a 17-6 victory that revived all of the offseason questions about that group – including the receivers, with some of them having to earn their jobs in practice. “We have a lot of competition going this week,” Taylor said.
Last weekend's offensive performance evoked criticism from coach Kyle Whittingham, who later said he “overreacted” in his postgame evaluation. Yet he cited a list of the problems: poor pass protection and “ignorant” penalties by the linemen, dropped passes by the receivers and not enough handoffs to running back Zack Moss in Taylor's scheme.
Moss, who missed a few possible opportunities when he was injured late in the game, got 16 carries for 66 yards against NIU. This is not the first time Whittingham has mentioned the issue, and that's a dilemma for Taylor.
He was hired to upgrade Utah's passing game, and has made progress. But a 286-yard passing night for quarterback Tyler Huntley is hollow when the offense produces 10 points.
Calling run plays does require patience when the defense is geared to stop them. In the season opener vs. Weber State, eight of Moss' 16 runs went for 2 yards or fewer, although he broke an 86-yarder and finished with 150 yards. Moss was more consistent at NIU. His last seven runs of the first quarter covered at least 4 yards each, but he got only one carry for 4 yards in the second quarter. His longest run was 12 yards.
Regardless of Taylor’s methods, the Utes went scoreless in the first half.
“Sometimes you get yourself in a situation where you’re getting four or five yards and you need to create some big plays on a drive, or you’re just not going to score many points,” Taylor said, explaining the play-calling challenge. “It’s just really hard to go 80 yards at five yards a shot. So you’re trying to keep the run game going, create some big plays and and do all those things — and keep [Moss] in a rhythm, keep [Huntley] in a rhythm.”
Maintaining that balance is tricky. And here comes Saturday night's game against No. 10 Washington, with possibly the best secondary in the country this season and the Pac-12's top-ranked defense of the past three years. The consolation is that Huntley and the Ute offense did some of their best work against the Huskies last season, delivering 30 points and 410 yards in a devastating 33-30 loss in Seattle.
Utah makes each offensive and defensive assistant coach available to the media once every five games. Tuesday marked Taylor's turn, in a move that was either perfectly timed or poorly timed after the offense's inefficient effort last weekend.
Taylor partly blamed himself, Huntley, the running backs and the receivers — not only the offensive line — for NIU’s six sacks. Pass protection overall was something the Ute offense did well in preseason camp that has not shown up consistently in the two games.
In August, summarizing his first season at Utah and looking ahead, Taylor said, “I learned a lot. … There’s a lot of things that I’ve adjusted. I’ve got to step up my game. You want the players to be better; I’ve got to be a better coach.”
Huntley said, “I can't wait to get on to the second year, and we're going to see the difference.”
Outsiders' optimism about the offense has diminished after the second game, as NIU’s 14 tackles for loss reduced Utah’s rushing output to 68 yards and the total yardage to 354. The Utes rank No. 5 in the Pac-12 and No. 40 in the FBS, averaging 470.5 yards, but that’s deceiving. Oregon and Utah are the only Pac-12 teams that have played both an FCS school and a Group of Five opponent. The Ducks lead the conference in total offense.