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SALT LAKE CITY — Here they are, unfortunately in a familiar spot, still struggling to find an identity in what remains a foreign homeland.
Midway through the college football season, the Pac-12 has not been kind to the Utah Utes. For the second consecutive year, the University of Utah is saddled with a 0-3 start, still striving to beat a team with a winning record in conference play.
“It’s a process,” coach Kyle Whittingham has said on numerous occasions.
As the eight-year coach correctly points out, Utah’s move into a significantly superior conference never was going to be seamless. The nine-game conference slate does not have a handful of gimmes built in every season, as the Mountain West did.
But does the transition — the Utes are 4-8 overall in conference games and play at No. 8 Oregon State on Saturday — have to be this difficult?
Except for the occasional breakdown, Utah’s defense has been acceptable over the past two seasons. Certain positions — most notably, at linebacker — definitely need an upgrade, but overall the talent is sufficient for success.
The offense, however, is entirely a different story, along the lines of a horror story, as we’ve seen in the scary month of October the past two years.
“Abysmal at times” was Whittingham’s phrase of choice at his weekly news conference Monday.
“It’s two years in a row now we’ve struggled on offense. Last year, just from a numbers standpoint, we were at or near the bottom (of the conference). I think it’s a product of several factors. We’ve got to keep recruiting the right way; I think that’s important. This is a whole different level of defense than we were facing in the Mountain West, with the exception of TCU. Those guys are obviously a very, very high caliber of defense. But there’s no question the caliber of defense that we’ve faced the last two years is a much higher level.”
Not that any of it has been a surprise. As soon as the University of Texas and Friends University rejected the invitation to join the expanding Pac-10, forcing Commissioner Larry Scott to seek other alternatives, Utah football was doomed to growing pains.
Specifically, the most difficult adjustment has been at quarterback. Obviously, Utah’s quarterback play has been woefully inadequate to beat great teams.
The galling part, as Ute fans can attest to, is that maybe it didn’t have to be this way.
For the second time in four years, Utah has started a freshman at quarterback. Freshman quarterbacks rarely win at any college level, let alone in the Pac-12.
Surely, after injuries sidelined Jordan Wynn for the 2010 bowl game, the coaches had to know he was fragile. At that point, they should have successfully recruited a junior college quarterback.
Instead, they began the inaugural Pac-12 season with Wynn, whose throwing motion was as painful as it looked. Even with Wynn’s inevitable season-ending injury, the staff again didn’t bring in a JC stopgap, choosing to go with the non-recruited Jon Hays and two incoming freshmen.
Wynn lasted all of two games this season before giving way to Hays, who’s since been replaced by freshman Travis Wilson — not exactly the best scenario for Brian Johnson, the youngest Division I offensive coordinator.
“I think he’s had some things that have made things not as easy as they could have been,” Whittingham said.
For all of his intelligence and charisma, Johnson was bound to struggle. And he has.
“There’s a ton of stuff that has come up over the first month of the season that has taken some getting used to,” Johnson said in an interview with DJ and PK last week. “The key for me, and the key for our program, is not to make those same mistakes twice.”
Last season, under offensive coordinator Norm Chow, Utah was a downhill running team, as John White set a Utah single-season rushing record. This season the Utes have been a little bit of everything, almost all of it ineffective.
With Johnson getting on-the-job training, White has been nothing more than another running back. Inexcusably, the senior had only 11 carries in last week’s loss to UCLA.
No matter if the play caller is age 25 or 65, he ought to know that White needs to average about 25 attempts a game. If the coordinator can’t figure it out, the head coach has to step in and demand it.
I think we're closer than a lot of people think we are.
“We’ve got to make more of a concerted effort to run the football,” Whittingham said. “I don’t think we’re running the ball enough.”
Somewhat on the fly, Utah has become a spread offense, with the 18-year-old Wilson at the helm. Together, Johnson and Wilson add up to 43 years old, only some 23 years younger than Chow, who now is Hawaii’s head coach.
Eventually, the kids will grow up and mature. Until then, expect more youthful indiscretions.
“I think we’re closer than a lot of people think we are,” Whittingham said.