Utes need more production, Kyle Whittingham says, because ‘You’re not going to beat Washington State 21-17.’

Utah returns from bye week by visiting the Cougs on Saturday.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) runs the ball as the University of Utah hosts Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday Sept. 15, 2018.

Utah's offense produced a total of 17 points in a win over Northern Illinois and a loss to Washington. If the Utes expect to beat Washington State, that's about how many points they will need in each half.

Football coaches rarely publicize a minimum standard for offensive performance — or any allowance for their defense — but Utah’s Kyle Whittingham made it clear Monday that his offense will have to do more than usual Saturday in Pullman, Wash. That means scoring 30 points or more.

“You're not going to beat Washington State 21-17; that's not going to happen,” Whittingham said during his weekly news conference.

The country’s top-ranked defense in points and yards allowed is almost certain to allow more than its season high of 21 points against WSU’s prolific passing scheme. So the Ute offense faces considerable pressure to do its part, after scoring one touchdown in each of its last two games.

The formula? When it comes to throwing the ball, the Utes (2-1) want to do it less frequently and more effectively. The program's self-study during the bye week, Whittingham said, resulted in an obvious conclusion about Utah's biggest deficiency: The passing game needs improvement. The Utes are “trying to get that thing jump-started; that's something that starts with coaching,” Whittingham said.

The Utes' problems with pass protection against Northern Illinois and dropped passes against Washington have raised questions about what was happening in preseason camp that’s not carrying over into September. The snapshots of media-viewing portions of practices and, especially, the coaches' level of encouragement about the offense’s progress in coordinator Troy Taylor’s second season suggested better results would come in games.

Yet as Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley said Monday, “As a unit, we just haven't been consistent in what we've been doing, not taking advantage of every opportunity that we get.”

The coaching staff’s hope of improving the passing game is mixed with the need to “play to our strengths a little bit more,” Whittingham said, responding to a question about the workload of running back Zack Moss. It was probably was not a coincidence that Moss represented the Ute offense (with Huntley, who’s a weekly presence) at the coach’s news conference.

Moss carried the ball only 13 times (for 67 yards) against Washington, partly due to his ankle injury, Whittingham said. Moss has not acknowledged being limited by the injury, but he did say Monday, “My whole, entire body feels better than it did the first couple of games; that’s what a bye week does for you.”

Utah committed seven turnovers in a 33-25 loss to Washington State last November. As Whittingham and his offensive staff keep trying to figure out how they can move the ball this year, there's absolutely no mystery about Washington State's approach. WSU coach Mike Leach, who admired the traditional BYU passing offense as a student and studied it in subsequent visits to the campus in the early stages of his coaching career, is an Air Raid disciple. His methods keep working, with quarterback Gardner Minshew thriving as a graduate transfer from East Carolina.

Leach has designed “a system he knows inside and out,” Whittingham said. “He plugs in the right players for the system.”

The Cougars (3-1) are coming off a 39-36 loss at USC in their Pac-12 opener. USC defensive lineman Jay Tufele, from Bingham High School, was named the Pac-12 special teams player of the week for blocking WSU’s tying field goal attempt.


When • Saturday, 4 p.m. MDT

TV • Pac-12 Networks