This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
A step forward, a step upward, a step onward.
That's what everybody around Utah football wanted and expected this season. No reasonable person was clamoring for a major bounce, for a sudden Rose Bowl berth or for any kind of unblemished run through the Pac-12 schedule. Just a modest move toward something a notch or two north of 5-4 and a fifth-place finish in the South, which is what the Utes achieved last time around.
Examining the league environment three games in, it appears now Utah's climb might not be as formidable as initially expected which is to say, the Pac-12 isn't as good as some thought. It's merely like scaling the Eiger instead of Annapurna. The question is: Can Utah take advantage of the opportunity, of the downgrade, without caroming 20,000 feet off a cliff?
On the doorstep of the Utes' league opener at Oregon on Saturday, after three nonconference games, all of them wins, Utah's top internal challenge remains pretty much what most observers figured it'd be: put some go in the O. The defense, which has been stout against the run, can improve, as Kyle Whittingham has said for a couple of weeks, can recreate more of the nasty whirl around opposing quarterbacks that it stirred in 2014. But if Utah is to actualize its potential, if it is to go beyond expectation and conjure a legitimate threat to the other top teams in the Pac-12, it is the offense that must grade that road and smooth that ride.
It's tough to evaluate such grading and smoothing so far in 2015 without a turn of the palms up and a shrug of the shoulders. To this juncture, the offense has been just kind of … an eeh and an ugh.
From here on out, it will have to elicit more of a fist pump and an all riiiiiiiight.
What that requires, above all else, is a healthy Travis Wilson. The senior quarterback may not have been anyone's world-beater in the past, not in any consistent way, but he gives Utah its best shot at an upward surge. Unless Chase Hansen is ready, and that's something nobody on the outside knows, Wilson is the only QB in the fold with the arm to give the Ute attack what it needs.
Before the season started, Aaron Roderick, Utah's co-offensive coordinator, spoke the following words, words that gave a lot of people hope that the Utes' offense at last would edge toward throttle up:
"We want to be a balanced offense … between run and pass. We don't put a number on it that we're going to be 50-50 or 60-40. Balance to me is that the defense has to respect your ability to use the whole field. So, we've got to use all of our position groups and we have to spread the field vertically and horizontally with our run game and with our passing game. If we can make the defense defend all of our offensive weapons, then we are a balanced team."
He added: "We played a lot of conservative football last season. Our goal was to reduce the turnovers. We didn't want to give games away. It was, 'Let's get into the fourth quarter and give ourselves a chance.' This year, we want to continue to protect the ball, but have more of an ability to attack. We can definitely be more aggressive. … We know we've got to be able to throw it."
The numbers show that the Utes, who finished dead last in the Pac-12 in passing a year ago, are going through a slight evolution, as opposed to a revolution.
Against Michigan, Utah State and Fresno State, they have thrown for a total of 501 yards and run for 543. Their opponents have run for 317 and passed for 776. Utah has attempted 81 passes and rushed the ball 129 times. The Utes have run for seven touchdowns and passed for one. They've been outgained total yardage-wise by their opponents, despite the fact that those opponents have struggled to put much of a hurt on Utah's defensive front. They're winning the turnover battle, having gained five interceptions and three fumbles against giving up two picks and two fumbles.
Sounds as though Utah's offense is still at base camp. But the Utes are 3-0.
Prior to Wilson's injury against Utah State, it looked like A-Rod and his offensive approach might be expanding. Against Michigan and for a short while against USU, Wilson was 33 of 45 for 286 yards. Kendal Thompson took over in the Aggies game and against a bad Fresno State team and completed 27 of 35 throws for 215 yards. A gifted runner, Thompson doesn't have the arm to grow the offense and defenses know that.
One thing Roderick correctly noted is that the passing game would benefit Devontae Booker's ability to run, forcing opposing defenses to honor those other threats. His hope is that Wilson will loft his spirals effectively enough to open space for a running back that doesn't require much to bust off large chunks of yards.
That's the combo-pack the Utes need to aspire to great heights. Something short of that will beat lesser opponents and Whittingham cannot allow himself to be suckered and seduced by that fact, limiting his offense all around, especially against more elite teams.
Whittingham is stuck in the middle of wanting a careful, turnover-averse ball-control offense and needing to stretch the field to open things up. He needs more big plays.
In addition to Booker's 345 rushing yards, the Utes have completed 14 passes to him for another 126 yards. That's good, but not good enough. They have to find some way to go vertical, to stretch the field and back defenders out of the box. Exactly which receiving targets are capable of that remains a mystery. Freshman Britain Covey is Utah's leading receiver, but his longest catch of the season went for 20 yards. It is Booker who has the team's biggest gain through the air 43 yards. A fix on both ends of that equation, Whittingham's dilemma, must be found.
Running off any string of wins against Oregon and Cal and Arizona State and USC and, later, Arizona and UCLA will demand it. Fortunately for them, the Utes have five Pac-12 games at home this year, which, in theory, also should make the climb easier.
Point is, an opportunity beckons here, potential fulfillment awaits.
The journey toward both commences on Saturday at Autzen.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.