Utah’s offense managed to dominate the country’s top-ranked defense Monday, according to the scoreboard of questions that coach Kyle Whittingham fielded during his weekly news conference.
After his opening statement covered defense, special teams and offense (in that order), Whittingham engaged in 14 minutes of discussion. The subject of the Utes' No. 1 ranking in total defense in the FBS never came up during the session, reflecting how Utah’s offensive struggles have overshadowed the entire program through three games of the 2018 season.
While scoring a defensive touchdown, the Utes totaled 17 offensive points in a nonconference win over Northern Illinois (17-6) and a loss to Washington (21-7), opening Pac-12 play. That’s the lowest two-game point production for Utah’s offense since losses to TCU and Notre Dame in November 2010.
“We look at everything; it is a self-study time,” Whittingham said of this week’s bye, in advance of a Sept. 29 game at Washington State.
Whittingham suggested the allocation of playing time for various athletes may stem from the evaluation. He also hinted that a shift in the coaching staff’s offensive philosophy could be coming, based on his compliment about the offensive line’s improvement against Washington. “I think they can dominate games; that’s their potential,” he said. “We were not overmatched in that game, physically.”
Naturally, the linemen are eager to do more run-blocking, having established themselves after a poor showing at Northern Illinois. “We take a lot of pride in what we do, and we just wanted to do a lot better,” said center Lo Falemaka, a senior co-captain.
Running back Zack Moss' ankle injury partly explained why he carried the ball only 13 times against Washington, gaining 67 yards. Armand Shyne, the No. 2 back, probably needed to get more than two carries, “but you’ve got to practice the right way too,” Whittingham said. “You earn your playing time. Coaches have got to feel confident in you and trust you.”
Shyne understands. “I’ve just to go to work on a few things practice-wise,” he said, “and I’m pretty sure I’ll prove myself.”
Ute receiver Britain Covey mentioned Utah’s lack of offensive “identity” in a postgame radio interview on ESPN 700. Whittingham has used that word in the past, although he acknowledged it is “an ambiguous term.” Asked what he wants his offense to look like, Whittingham cited avoiding turnovers, running the ball with a physical aura and still having “big-play capability” in the passing game. Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley completed 20 of 38 passes (with several drops) for 138 yards against Washington, facing one of the country’s top secondaries.
Utah ranks 84th among 130 teams in the FBS in total offense, averaging 400.7 yards. That’s skewed by a 587-yard effort against FCS member Weber State. The Utes' average of 307.5 yards against their two FBS opponents would rank 128th —although it’s true that most other teams have played FCS opponents, inflating their statistics as well.
Utah’s defense is allowing 204.7 yards, another figure made deceiving by Weber State’s 59-yard production in the opener. Yet the Utes' average of 307.5 yards allowed to Northern Illinois and Washington still would rank in the top 30.
The Utes' failings fit into a 10-season trend of Whittingham’s search for a consistent offense, since coordinator Andy Ludwig left following the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Second-year coordinator Troy Taylor is Whittingham’s eighth play-caller (counting Aaron Roderick’s two stints) after Ludwig. Whittingham and Taylor both said in August that the Utes should improve in the second season of the scheme, yet an offense that produced 30 points and 410 yards at Washington last November was held to seven points and 261 yards Saturday, partly due to three turnovers.
Asked about his level of frustration with the offense, Whittingham said, “We don’t have a huge body of work [in 2018]. For two weeks, we’ve struggled a little bit and that’s probably an understatement. … Right now, we’re not putting points up and we’re turning the ball over more than anyone in the Pac-12. Based on those two things, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Whittingham declined to evaluate Taylor’s work during the season, although he said, “I keep going back to the confidence I have in our players. I really like our offensive players and we really believe in them. We as coaches have got to do a better job of putting them in position to be successful.”
In Utah’s rotation of assistants who are made available to the media, Taylor’s next scheduled session is Oct. 22.