Utah football wants to figure out first-quarter struggles

Utes have outscored last two opponents 108-14, but have scored just seven first-quarter points

This college football season is still too young, and the competition the University of Utah has faced hasn’t been stiff enough to make any definitive judgments, but the Utes’ offense is off to a strong start.

Utah is averaging 480.7 yards of total offense (No. 4 Pac-12, No. 27 nationally) and 44.7 points per game (No. 4 Pac-12, No. 15 nationally). The Utes also lead the conference in rushing offense (216.7 yards per game) and have outscored their last two opponents, Southern Utah and San Diego State, by a combined score of 108-14.

Now, imagine what Utah’s offense could do with a full four quarters.

The Utes’ two wins, which came on the heels of a disappointing season-opening loss at the University of Florida, included some noteworthy first-quarter struggles.

In the first quarter of the last two games combined, Utah scored just seven points, while averaging 4.9 yards per play and picking up 205 total yards. Meanwhile, the second quarter of the last two games combined yielded 59 points, 9.0 yards per play and 421 total yards.

“I don’t think it’s crisis mode right now or time to panic, it’s just been a couple of games where we haven’t started like we wanted to,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday morning. “We had a drop in the first drive Saturday night where if we catch that ball, who knows what happens, off and running.

“It would be ideal to start better on offense. We’re going to make a few adjustments in practice this week to get a little more of a jump start early and see if we can get it corrected.”

In the first quarter of a 35-7 win over the Aztecs on Saturday, Utah ran 22 offensive plays, but had nothing to show for it.

Normally in control and accurate, Cam Rising did not look particularly sharp early, nor did his offensive line, which has otherwise played well this month. Rising was 4 for 12 for 39 yards in the first quarter. He was sacked once, which is a rarity, and was hurried out of the pocket at least twice.

The dropped pass Whittingham referred to on the opening drive helped lead to the offense stalling inside the San Diego State 40-yard line before Whittingham opted to punt.

Whittingham zeroed in on one possible reason for the early struggles, the fact San Diego State uses an uncommon 3-3-5 defense — three linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. The scheme generally includes a healthy amount of blitzing, while employing zone coverage.

By comparison, Utah will often go with a 4-2-5 alignment.

“The 3-3-5 we faced, you don’t see it much anymore,” Whittingham said. “It’s almost like the defense facing an option team, where it’s a radical departure from what you see week to week, and you have to have a special plan for it, practice for it, try to simulate it with your scout team, and that is part of the reason for last week. With all the movement, slanting, twisting they do, it takes a little bit of time to get acclimated to that.”

Once Utah settled in, San Diego State didn’t have an answer for Rising, who was 10 for 12 for 123 yards in the second quarter with touchdown passes to Brant Kuithe, Solomon Enis and Devaughn Vele for a 21-0 halftime lead.

After the rough start, Rising finished 18 for 30 for 224 yards and a career-high four touchdown passes, giving him eight through three games, although he has played in only nine of 12 quarters thanks to the last two blowouts.

Rising’s numbers are good, as are Utah’s on offense, but they would be better if the Utes could get the first quarter better figured out.

“There’s some execution, there’s some play calls, some things the defense is doing as well,” Utes offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. “The enemy gets a vote as well, they have something to do with it as well, but I am pleased with the tenacity of the group and the way they’re finishing things out.”

“The poise and composure of the group, it would have been really easy to get flustered and frustrated and have things start going real bad, but the guys just stuck together and started making plays, playing catch, protecting the passer, and good things happened.”