This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
As of midway through Saturday night's fourth quarter, with Utah and Fresno State already having combined to score five touchdowns in the period, the Utes had run exactly two offensive plays.
The sequence of events included three touchdown passes from Fresno State's displaced quarterback, kickoff and punt returns for Utah scores and the Bulldogs' successful onside kick. None of that stuff ultimately altered the outcome, a 45-24 win for the Utes. Yet the bizarre conclusion of Utah's nonconference schedule seemed fitting. At this stage, who really knows what to think of this team?
The Utes are enjoying one of the highest mid-September rankings (No. 18) in school history, although that may not be their verb of choice. Nobody seems satisfied with Utah's performance through three games, which is healthy. The standards are higher in Pac-12 play and much more will be required from the Utes, beginning Saturday night at Oregon.
For an unbeaten team, the Utes have created as much doubt as belief in themselves this month. Their deficiencies include any downfield passing scheme, the pass rush, coverage of receivers and the ability to finish games decisively. Those problems somehow must be fixed immediately if the Utes expect to beat Oregon.
The consolation is the Pac-12 South title seemingly is available to any team, including Utah, that asserts itself in the coming weeks. If the Utes could replay the first one-fourth of their season, they would love to have quarterback Travis Wilson available for more than six quarters. He's expected to return from a shoulder injury at Oregon, and Kendal Thompson performed acceptably in his absence.
But without Wilson, the Utes have not followed through on the mild improvement their passing game displayed in the opener against Michigan, and the offense has not produced more than 24 points of its own in any game.
Other unfavorable trends are developing. No fewer than 100 teams in the country have more sacks than Utah's three in three games, although the Utes have turned two of them into fumble recoveries including one returned for a touchdown. If coach Kyle Whittingham magically could improve one thing, it would be generating more pressure on the quarterback.
Compared with previous years, the Utes are blitzing less in John Pease's first season as defensive coordinator, Whittingham said Monday. That approach seems likely to change, with Whittingham's influence, as long as the secondary's work improves. Getting defensive end Hunter Dimick back from injury would increase the pass rush. The same is true of the offense, with receivers Tim Patrick and Raelon Singleton having been sidelined.
"You see spurts in every game" from the offense, said cornerback Cory Butler-Byrd, who played receiver in preseason practice. "So once they start rolling, it's going to make our team that much better."
Utah ranks 77th in pass-efficiency defense, having allowed seven TD passes, even with cornerback Dominique Hatfield in the lineup after missing the opener. The Utes are 107th in passing offense, averaging 167 yards. And their only touchdown pass was meaningless, coming with 14 seconds left at Fresno State.
In any case, the offense made sure the Utes finished well in Fresno after all of the fourth-quarter madness that Whittingham labeled "ridiculous," from a defensive perspective. Utah entered the period with a 24-3 lead and Bubba Poole ran for 15 yards on the first play. Who would have believed the final score would be 45-24? The Utes fumbled on the next play. Utah's offense then stayed on the sideline while the Bulldogs scored three touchdowns and Butler-Byrd and Britain Covey returned kicks for scores. The irony is that without those returns, the Utes could have shortened the game with long drives, as the offense did all night, and made the defense look better.
Other than Justin Thomas' interception return for a touchdown against Michigan, the secondary has not played well in fourth quarters. Opponents' passing success proved harmless in the end, but that may not be true in Pac-12 play if the Utes are trying to hold a lead. Amid the Utah offense's inconsistency, the goofy thing about last season is the defense allowed go-ahead touchdowns to five conference opponents in the fourth quarter or overtime forcing the offense to rescue wins over UCLA, Oregon State, USC and Stanford, after losing to Washington State.
The offense has not been asked to deliver in the fourth quarter this season, and the defense has helped build sufficient leads to make its lapses forgivable. At Oregon, the Utes will need a complete performance.
Utah's all-time AP rankings after three games:
2010 No. 13
2004 No. 14
2015 No. 18
2008 No. 20