SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been a tale of two seasons for Utah, which, after opening the season 4-0, finds itself in the throes of a four-game losing streak, its longest since 2013.
If you’ll recall, the tone of part one was quite positive. At that time, the Utes were unbeaten and ranked, Tyler Huntley and Darren Carrington II looked better than advertised, an aggressive secondary and defensive line were leading a strong defense and Matt Gay was still perfect. Hope sprung eternal.
But a lot has changed since then, both in the team's record as well as in the quality of play across all three phases.
Let’s take a look.
View from the clubhouse
Overall record: 4-4 (L4)
Conference record: 1-4 (6th in South)
AP rank: N/A
Passing rank: 42nd
Rushing rank: 86th
Unit MVP: Darren Carrington II
Key injuries: Armand Shyne (RB), Jordan Agasiva (OL)
Utah’s most recent four-game split began with Troy Williams at quarterback, who filled in for Tyler Huntley while the latter was on the mend with a shoulder injury. In his first start of the season against Stanford, Williams struggled to establish any rhythm in the passing game, completing 20-of-39 passes for 238 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, both occurring on consecutive plays in the fourth quarter. While the late interceptions were damaging, a case could be made that Williams’ biggest misstep was failing to incorporate Utah’s offensive playmakers early.
Although Utah’s best receiver, Carrington, finished the game with seven catches for 99 yards and a touchdown, the first half came and went without him recording a single catch, leading him to say that he wished he had been a bigger factor early on. In any case, it all added up to the Utes’ first loss of the season.
Williams was better the next week at the Coliseum against USC, though not enough for the Utes to rebound with a win. There, the senior accounted for a passing, rushing and receiving touchdown, while throwing a single yet costly interception in the red zone.
In a game Utah had every opportunity to win, the inflection point came in the second half, as Utah’s offense managed just a single touchdown on five possessions as part of a 14-point collapse against the Trojans. While Williams was far from perfect in the game, so too was the rest of the Utah offense.
In that second half, penalties and sacks loomed large on early downs as drive-killers as the two play types combined for a total of -33 yards for the offense. But of course what is most remembered—perhaps unfairly—is the lone second-half touchdown on the game’s final drive and the subsequent two-point conversion fail, both of which came on the back of Williams. To most, he deserves as much credit for the drive as blame for the ensuing two-point conversion.
Huntley returned the following week against Arizona State, though not as the savior of Utah’s season but rather as the author of its worst performance. In that game, he threw a career-high four interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown, as part of an offensive performance that saw the Utes wait until the 2:41 mark of the fourth quarter before scoring their first—and only—touchdown of the day.
The sophomore was better last week in Autzen, though “better” is admittedly a relative term. While Huntley was able to limit the turnovers that plagued him the week before, the offense still struggled to extend drives and score in the red zone with him at the helm. When it mattered most in the fourth quarter, Utah couldn’t manage a drive longer than five plays, turning it over on downs on each of its final three possessions.
Regardless of who’s been under center though, a major problem for Utah’s offense has been staying on schedule, particularly in converting the all-important third down. At present, Utah’s offense ranks last in the Pac-12 in third-down conversion rate at 32.69 percent, down nearly six percentage points from the 38.34 mark it posted in 2016.
“We haven’t been in an inordinate amount of third-and-longs,” coach Kyle Whittingham said at his press conference last week of the proportion of third-down distances his team has faced this season. “The third downs have been relatively reasonable. We just haven’t converted. We’re not good enough on third-and-short, we’re not good enough on third-and-medium and we’re not good enough on third and long.”
The table below shows how frequently Utah’s offense has attended various third-down ranges this season, with every attempt sorted into one of the three thresholds offered by Whittingham: third-and-short, third-and-medium and third-and-long. Also included in the table are conversion rates by range, as well as conversion rates by play type for each range. (Side note: Because the definitions of each range tend to vary by source, it should be noted that the featured thresholds are my own subjective determinations.)
The effects have been far-reaching. From an offensive standpoint, the success rate in converting third downs directly impacts a team’s red-zone efficiency, two-minute offense and often the outcome of the game. For the Utes, it’s the first of those three factors that’s been impacted the most.
Through eight games, Utah is converting on 84 percent of its red-zone visits, though many of those conversions have come in the form of field goals—the consolation prize of failed third downs in scoring territory. In all, Utah has almost as many field goals (15) as touchdowns (18) in the red zone this season.
Finally, if there’s an area where the Utes have been strong in the last four games, it happens to be the same area that’s seen the least utility: the running game. In the last four games, Zack Moss has averaged an impressive 5.6 yards per carry despite being somewhat marginalized in Utah’s offense. Might an increase in Moss’ usage help fortify Utah’s offense?
Passing rank: 40th
Rushing rank: 57th
Unit MVP: Chase Hansen
Key injuries: N/A
Once thought to be the strength of the team, the Utes' rush defense has been suspect in recent weeks, giving up at least 174 rushing yards in each of its last four games, and 200+ in its last two. Some of this can be attributed to the offense, whose struggles have increased the defense’s play count and incurred a negative, unintended consequence of fatigue. The second half of the Stanford and USC games serve as the best examples, as Utah’s defense appeared worn down after multiple abbreviated drives from the offense.
As much as anything, though, Utah just hasn’t been the force in the trenches that it’s been in the past, something that has also been reflected in its pass rush. After leading the conference in sacks a year ago, the Utes have recorded just 14 through eight games this season and only five since conference play began. Some of this comes down to finishing plays. At times, the front seven has been very effective at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, just not in sacking those quarterbacks. If the pressure continues, this might be the type of thing that corrects itself over the last four games.
Utah’s defense has also endured sustained disappointment on third down, as Whittingham’s crew is allowing its Pac-12 neighbors to convert 44 percent of their third downs on a relatively low number of attempts (17). It’s possible that percentage regresses to the mean as the sample grows, but until then, it will remain something to keep an eye on.
Somewhat unfairly, targeting calls continue to be an issue for the defense. While the unit navigated the Stanford and USC games without registering a targeting call, it wasn’t so lucky against Arizona State, as Utah saw both Corrion Ballard and Donovan Thompson flagged and ejected for the foul.
On the whole, the defense has slipped some from where it was earlier in the season, though much of the slippage is owed to the offense putting the defense in compromised positions. The grade last time was a B+; it won’t be downgraded too much this time around.
Field goal kicking rank: 31st
PAT kicking rank: T-1st
Punting rank: 9th
Unit MVP: Mitch Wishnowsky
Key injuries: N/A
After making 14 straight field goals to begin the season, the once-steady Matt Gay has converted just five of his last eight attempts. While the misfires have been costly, it should be pointed out that two of those misses were from distances exceeding 40 yards, which, reassuringly, indicates that short flights are not a problem for the former UVU soccer player. He remains perfect on his extra points, so the negative trendline is not one to be overly concerned with at this point.
Elsewhere, it’s been business as usual for Mitch Wishnowsky, who continues to be one of the nation’s best punters. At present, Wishnowsky is averaging 45.63 yards per punt this season, placing him 10th nationally in terms of average distance. Doubly impressive is that Utah’s punt team has only allowed a single punt return all season for a total of -1 yard. Maybe the best news for Utah’s punting game, though, has been the resolution at long-snapper. Since Whittingham made the move to a timeshare at the position following a string of botched snaps early in the season, the Utes have not seen a single errant snap.
Wishnowksy’s work on kickoffs also remains a solid part of the special teams, as the sophomore has produced 34 touchbacks on 45 attempts, good enough for the 9th-best touchback percentage nationally. As a unit, the kickoff team has allowed 232 return yards and zero touchdowns.
Lastly, Utah’s dual return games have run in opposite directions this season. On punt returns, Boobie Hobbs has done fairly well in generating favorable field position for the offense, as his 11.35 yards per return ranks him 17th nationally and second in the conference. On kick returns, it’s been a different story. Through eight games, Utah has returned only 11 kicks for an average of 17 yards, ranking it 126th and 121st in the country, respectively. A big return is always a block or cut away, but so far, Utah just hasn’t had many opportunities to realize that block or cut.