In the four seasons since the Utes delivered a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama and earned a No. 2 ranking in the final AP Poll, the offense has regressed to a stunning degree. Utah stands 114th among 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense this season. The offense's production, coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged Monday, has been "abysmal at times."
The Utes' struggles reflect an absence of direction that stems from Whittingham's questionable staffing decisions and changes in his offensive approach, although he disputes such a description.
Mostly by Whittingham's choice, the Utes have used four play-callers in four years and promoted true freshmen as starting quarterbacks in the middle of two seasons. The Utes have arrived at a point where the offense producing a late touchdown and barely topping the 300-yard mark Saturday at UCLA represented progress.
Utah may have moved toward a long-term solution in that 21-14 loss, using more of a true spread offense and making freshman Travis Wilson the No. 1 quarterback.
Whittingham described the latest adjustment as "a semi-change in philosophy," saying the Utes now "are doing what suits us best," and Wilson endorses it. But questions remain about John White, a 1,500-yard rusher last season, as the Utes search for an offensive identity. Whittingham promises "a concerted effort" to give White the ball Saturday at No. 8 Oregon State.
Moving to the Pac-12 created major challenges for the program, and Whittingham mostly blames the other guys, saying Utah's recruiting has not caught up to opponents' talent level. That's not a fully satisfying explanation. Whittingham's management of the offensive staff ever since coordinator Andy Ludwig (who's now at San Diego State) left after the Sugar Bowl is ripe for second-guessing including the celebrated hiring of Norm Chow, who stayed for only the 2011 season before becoming Hawaii's coach.
Whittingham has contended there's "more continuity than you might think" in Utah's offense during his eight-year tenure, using a "modified spread" label. Yet he authorized Chow's scheme emphasizing a "downhill" running game, believing a ball-control approach was necessary in the Pac-12.
Prior to that, Whittingham promoted Dave Schramm as the play-caller in 2009, then reassigned those duties to Aaron Roderick after seven games. Roderick lasted through 2010, only to be demoted when Chow was hired. Chow's replacement is Brian Johnson, the Sugar Bowl MVP, who's in his third season of coaching.
Johnson may yet prove capable and clearly Whittingham is stuck with him after all the recent turnover. But unlike BYU and Utah State, whose coordinators listen to veteran counsel in their offensive meeting rooms, Utah lacks that dynamic. Whittingham, emboldened by another new contract, sacrificed experience in filling two staff vacancies in 2012, favoring "high energy, great chemistry, no egos" and recruiting ability.
The Utes' personnel issues at quarterback and elsewhere obviously have hampered Johnson. Jordan Wynn's shoulder injuries ended his career in September. Inadequate recruiting between Wynn and Wilson has hurt Utah for two seasons, with Jon Hays only a temporary fix as an original Division II signee. Whittingham is addressing the position with commitments from two high school quarterbacks.
Injuries, inconsistency and the absence of two junior college recruits have affected the offensive line's performance. The Utes would love to have receiver Josh Gordon, who transferred from Baylor last year. Gordon entered the NFL's supplemental draft in July (he later admitted failing a drug test at Utah) and has caught touchdown passes of 62, 20 and 71 yards in Cleveland's last two games. Utah's longest play is 39 yards.
So the Utes (2-4) find themselves fighting for bowl eligibility with an offense that requires a lot of defending, from Whittingham on down.
Utah's offensive stats the past five seasons:
Year Yds. Rank Rec. Play-caller Starting QB
2008 400.9 35th 13-0 Andy Ludwig Brian Johnson
2009 389.5 54th 10-3 D. Schramm/A. Roderick T. Cain/J. Wynn
2010 389.0 52nd 10-3 Roderick Wynn/Cain
2011 310.8 109th 8-5 Norm Chow Wynn/Jon Hays
2012 302.6 114th 2-4 Brian Johnson Wynn/Hays/T. Wilson