Back to the drawing board? The Utes’ offense has a lot to figure out

After gaining only 241 yards and posing next to zero threat against Oregon, the Utes are determined to unlock consistent gains and more downfield potential — even if they’re not totally certain how best to go about it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes receiver Money Parks (10) is tacked in front of the Oregon bench, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

Every Monday, one offensive coach from the Utah football team is selected to address the media in a scrum-style interview once the evening’s practice has concluded.

On this occasion, as running backs coach Quinton Ganther took his place along a wall inside in the Utes’ indoor practice facility as reporters encircled him, he jokingly expressed discomfort.

“I don’t like this,” Ganther said. “I get backed in a corner, I’m usually swinging!”

Sage advice, actually, for the Utes as a whole in the aftermath of Saturday’s 35-6 obliteration at the hands of Oregon.

And for the offense in particular.

Sione Vaki’s explosive addition had seemed to provide just the jump-start the previously mediocre unit had needed, with his breakout performance vs. Cal and scintillating follow-up against USC seemingly indicative of big things to come.

None of it, though, carried over against the Ducks.

Vaki got just five touches and totaled 11 yards. The Utes as a team ran for 99 yards and passed for 142.

“I don’t want to say ‘back to the drawing board,’ but we’ve got to figure things out,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said postgame.

Back to the drawing board seems pretty necessary, frankly, at this point.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) is taken down by the Oregon defense as the Utah Utes host the Oregon Ducks, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

Everyone on the Utes was quick to credit Oregon for its defensive gameplan … but they also acknowledged that they were hardly in top form.

“There’s a lot of things we need to improve, just as a whole offensive unit,” quarterback Bryson Barnes said, vaguely. “I mean, it definitely was not our best showing.”

“I just think we didn’t execute. We came out flat, wasn’t running the plays like we should have been, wasn’t being physical enough,” wide receiver Devaughn Vele added, more specifically. “It was just overall domination on their part. Credit to them, they’re a great team, but we definitely just came out flat and we weren’t able to make plays.”

So then, how do the Utes get back to doing that?

Do they have it in them to replicate the performances they had against the Bears and Trojans, or are such showings doable only against the defensive dregs of the Pac-12, while doomed to failure vs. any opponent with a modicum of aptitude on that side of the ball?

Utah’s players and coaches believe they have it in them, even if they’re presenting some mixed messages on how best to achieve it.

It sounds like a chicken-or-egg conundrum to some degree.

On Saturday, Whittingham noted that the ground game was stymied because the Utes didn’t take enough shots downfield, thus getting extra defenders out of the box. Then, on Monday, both the coach and his quarterback implied that the passing attack could have been better set up for success if the Utes had run the ball better.

“When we’re at our best, we’re running the football efficiently — that sets up the play-action game and everything else,” said Whittingham. “We’ve got to find a way to get back on track with that. It’s not panic time. It was one game. And we feel like we’ve got a really good O-line, good backs. And so we’ll make an effort to get that back on track. Because typically as the run game goes, so goes the offense.”

“We’ve just gotta establish the run game first. When we are able to establish a run game, it creates one-on-ones on the outside,” added Barnes. “And you know, I like our matchups on the outside.”

Such an argument doesn’t necessarily make the most sense, considering the evidence of Vele being the Utes’ only wideout Saturday to have any consistent success, to say nothing of Utah’s running backs consistently seeing seven, eight, nine defenders in the box, owing to opponents’ lack of belief in Utah’s capacity to hurt them through the air.

Not that Ganther is going to make any excuses for the Utes averaging 2.8 yards per carry Saturday.

“You just got to be Superman — you got to carry five, six, or seven of them. That’s how you do it,” he said. “I mean, we can’t cry about that. Do your job. I don’t care if they put 20 in the box — figure it out.”

(Hunter Dyke | Utah Athletics) Running backs coach Quinton Ganther said the Utes' running backs need to find a way to break through, even if it entails carrying five, six, or seven defenders at a time.

Twenty in the box would actually be a welcome scenario, as it would at least guarantee the Utes a relatively sizable gain of five yards on account of a “too many men on the field” penalty.

As for how the Utes can accomplish moving the ball more realistically and more organically, well, Vele had some suggestions.

“Players just got to make plays. I think that’s what it boils down to,” he said. “I mean, you can execute an entire game plan, saying that this is going to work, but if we can’t make the plays, it’s not gonna happen. So I feel like as an offensive unit, we just need bigger playmakers, we need big chunk plays. It’s just overall being more explosive in everything that we do. These 2-, 3-yard gains, I mean, it can work as we [chip] away, but you know, you need those big shots, you need those big runs if you want to start winning these games against explosive offenses like Oregon and Washington.”

He’s not wrong.

But pulling it off is easier said than done right now.

Whittingham said the coaches needed to do a better job of attacking Oregon’s perimeter, of getting Utah’s playmakers opportunities in space. While Vaki was not operating at 100%, the Utes still needed to get him more touches, particularly in the passing game.

Speaking of which, receivers Money Parks, Mikey Matthews, and Munir McClain, plus tight end Landen King, have all shown big-play ability at various points this season, but against the Ducks, that quartet had a combined seven receptions for 49 yards.

Meanwhile, star running back Ja’Quinden Jackson once again appeared hampered by an ankle injury that has seemingly bothered him for most of the season thus far.

Not that Ganther wanted to hear about that.

“Well, one thing about this sport that we play called football — as soon as you report to training camp, you’re never healthy again until the end of the season,” he said. “That’s just how it goes. So, OK, he’s hurt right now; hey, s---, I’m hurt too — my feelings are hurt! But I gotta keep going. We’re alright, we’ll figure it out.”

Ummmm, just for clarification, it is easier to run with hurt feelings than an injured ankle, right?

“Nope! I got bad knees, bad back, bad shoulders [from] carrying all this drama on my back!” Ganther replied, laughing. “But we’ll get it right.”

Time to come out swinging.

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