Troy Taylor was asked the other night whether he is the answer to a question that has haunted and hovered over Utah football for the better part of a decade now: Are you the lasting solution, the effective longterm offensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham has needed and lacked?
His answer: “I hope so.”
The response was perfect. Not too sure of itself, not too unsure. One that is building.
There were times last season, Taylor’s first at Utah, and this season, too, when that hope was spiraling in the wrong direction, when the Utes struggled to score against teams such as Northern Illinois and Washington and, with the outcome very much on the line, in the second half against Washington State, when they were passing when they should have been running, when they were leaning on a defense that was growing impatient.
That was then, this is now.
Coming off what was one of the best coaching jobs anyone has done at any time at any school this season, Utah’s 32-25 win over the Oregon Ducks, with its starting quarterback and its starting running back injured, gone for the season, guys who accounted for 85 percent of the offense, Taylor attempted to explain how he pulled that feat off.
“The short answer is execution,” he said. “The long answer is, we’re playing with a lot of confidence, the guys understand the system a little better. I just try to be the same guy, each day, each week. Once they get the swagger, then good things usually start happening.”
The Utes got that swagger with a redshirt freshman QB — Jason Shelley — who had never started a college game and a journeyman RB — Armand Shyne — who ended up gaining in that single outing more yardage than he had picked up in the previous nine.
“We did the same stuff,” Taylor said. “You never know how someone’s going to react in a game. I did think [Shelley] would be poised. He’s always had good vision [in practice]. He’s always made plays with his legs. He’s been accurate. He did all those things on the big stage.
“I kept asking him throughout the week how he was, and he said, ‘Good.’ I asked him if he was going to be nervous, have self-doubt. He was composed and ready the whole week. He was quiet and reserved out on the field and he stayed that way through the whole game.”
If a coach’s foremost responsibility is to put his players, whoever they are, in the best position, whatever it is, to succeed, Taylor accomplished that Saturday night by the truckload. That included calling just the right plays on two key drives late in the game, one when the Utes had fallen behind and needed a touchdown, the other when they had to hold possession of the ball to keep it away from Oregon’s offense.
Taylor said he studied Shelley and Shyne through the game and, by the end, had an idea of what they could and would do well. He mixed and matched calls and the players did the rest.
“I’m always adapting,” he said.
That’s been the story of Utah’s offense this season. It started slow and, at times, looked discombobulated, seeming to have forgotten or neglected what it did best — move the ball on the ground, allowing a great running back — Zack Moss — to pound the rock while the big’uns up front got physical creating space, complemented by timely passing.
Against NIU, the Utes rushed for a mere 68 yards. They passed for 286. Against Washington, they ran for 123 yards on 29 attempts and threw for 138 on 39 attempts. Against Washington State, Utah ran the ball effectively through the first half, and leaned away from it in the second.
Taylor had some questions about the way he was directing the attack, and was open to ideas from others. Conversely, he did not believe it wise to turn the thing upside down in a panic.
“You want to be successful and when you’re not, it’s natural for people to doubt themselves,” he said. “But I’d had enough success in the past that I thought it’d work. There’s always a way to get it done. You’ve just got to keep searching to figure it out. A little fear, a little doubt can be a good thing. Keep pushing yourself a little bit.”
Instead, he made subtle adjustments as the players began to understand what they should be doing. At no time, according to Taylor, did Whittingham, as some kind of dark overlord, step in and order his OC to rearrange the offense.
“[Kyle] is a guy who just wants production,” said Taylor. “He doesn’t really care how you get it done, he just wants you to be productive. I’d be crazy not to take advantage of that kind of mind. He gives input and it’s always good input. He just wants to be successful, like all high achievers. … He lets me do my thing.”
Whittingham’s assessment of the offense now: “We seem to be getting a lot of traction with what [Troy’s] been doing. The players are completely understanding of all the nuances, the details of what’s going on. That’s what makes the difference, the subtle adjustments and details, from being an average offense to being a pretty good offense.”
When Whittingham was straight-up asked if he went to Taylor and told him to run the damn ball, he laughed, and paused. He did not answer directly, saying only: “We’re on the same page there. You want to play to your strengths. We had Zack Moss and now we have Armand Shyne, and our offensive line is pretty physical. That’s something that we just do well.”
As for the players themselves — not that any of them would openly rip their offensive coordinator, even if they didn’t like him — they say they have been stoked by Taylor’s acumen and approach.
“He’s been really effective,” said junior receiver Demari Simpkins. “He has a ton of energy. My freshman year, whenever we practiced, it was just another day. We came in to get it over with. This year, you have something to look forward to. It’s just the energy he brings.”
Simpkins added the strength of Taylor’s attack is in his system: “It’s not about the players. Anybody can work in his system, no matter how fast you are, how quick you are. It’s all about how smart you are and how hard you play.”
Assistant coach Gary Andersen, a four-time head coach, called Taylor “Steady Eddie,” saying the offensive staff worked through “the good and the bad and found the adjustments they had to make. You go through those times, you go through those lulls, when you’re playing just OK when you think you should be playing great. All those guys stayed steady through the process. Troy’s done a great job.”
There are still times when the offense jumps off-track, as was the case against Arizona State, but Utah has won five of six games, the attack carrying its weight in the wins.
“Anytime you have a loss, or you’re not playing well, it can get pretty dark,” Taylor said. “But I’m pretty resilient. I usually wake up and feel better. I’ve always believed in the guys, the coaches, myself.”
The strategic core of that optimism stems from the recent success.
Through the mist of the undulations, then, Taylor said he’s always had a clear vision of what he wanted: “It’s not there yet, but we’re definitely getting there. Once everybody understands what’s going on, not just their own part, but the larger part, and they know it on every play, we’ll be really good. We’re getting closer to that.”
As for remaining at Utah over the long haul, that’s Taylor’s plan.
“I really like driving this offense. I like watching guys improve. I want to beat Colorado and win the South, that’s what I want,” he said. "I want to stay here. I love this place. I love the people. I love working for Coach Whit. It’s an incredible culture.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.