Bye weeks are a great time for teams to get healthy, regroup, hit the recruiting trail and prepare for the schedule ahead. For the Utah Utes, it’s also an extra few days to feel the sting of another Pac-12 loss—a feeling that has become far too familiar since making the (steep) leap from the Mountain West in 2010.
After a big win over No. 5-ranked Stanford, the Utes lost consecutive road games at unranked Arizona and USC. The seemingly monumental win was supposed to propel Utah into contention in their new conference, but it may have in fact done the opposite.
The team now limps (physically and mentally) into the bye week with some issues to address.
Here are those issues, along with suggested solutions to possibly salvage the season. A bowl game is still within reach, right?
Like I said, this is a normal top-of-the-list task for most teams during a bye.
And this Utah team is no different, especially with the starting quarterback, Travis Wilson, nursing a collection of cuts, scratches and scrapes on his throwing hand. The injury has clearly affected his efficiency throwing the ball—1,118 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions in his first four starts of season; 588 yards, five touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his four most recent starts.
Nevertheless, the sophomore signal-caller is not blaming injuries for his rapid decline.
"I don't think it really affected me at all. I was just trying to make throws, trying to make plays, and it just wasn't going for me on Saturday," he said to Dirk Facer of the Deseret News. "I've just got to make sure I get that corrected this week in practice."
In addition to Wilson, several other Utes, including linebacker Jacoby Hale and running back Lucky Radley, will spend the week (hopefully) getting back to 100 percent.
Suggested solution: rest, ice, compress, elevate. Oh, and make Wilson wear oven mitts everywhere he goes away from the field. Take it from George Costanza, it's the best way to keep the hand in tip-top shape.
Solve the Running Back Riddle
Four running backs walk onto the football field with only one football to share...
The running back situation has often felt like an awkward joke without the punchline. Bubba Poole has been the guy. Kelvin York has been the guy. Lucky Radley has been the guy. Even Karl Williams has been the guy.
But nobody has yet emerged as the guy, nor have they been given the proper opportunity to do so.
A running back needs repetition. He needs lots of carries to get into a rhythm and build confidence. No back on the current roster has received a steady enough diet of carries to really get things going. It's a taste here, a nibble and a bite there, but not the full-course meal this offense desperately needs.
A member of the four-headed attack has recently voiced frustration on the matter, and I'm sure he's not alone.
"This season they put me in and I can't really get into a rhythm and when I do get into a rhythm they take me back out." York lamented after the 19-3 defeat at the hands of the Trojans, via Lya Wodraska of the Salt Lake Tribune. "This season they put me in and I can't really get into a rhythm and when I do get into a rhythm they take me back out.
"Up and down" is right. It's the perfect way to describe this running back situation...and the season up to this point.
Suggested solution: Feature Poole with a generous side of York; Williams is better suited at fullback, anyways.
Poole, who has a combined 722 yards rushing and receiving out of the backfield, is bigger and faster than John White IV but doesn't run nearly as hard between the tackles. York, however, knows how to grind out the tough yards.
Get the Tight Ends Involved (Again)
What tight ends? Good question. Seems like forever ago when the tight end position was considered a position of strength for the Utes. You know, ages ago, way, way back in fall camp.
Entering the season, new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson was determined to incorporate talented starting tight ends Jake Murphy and Westlee Tonga into the offense. That is, until both went down with major injuries—Tonga a leg injury, Murphy a broken wrist.
So now it's up to two newbies, junior college transfer Greg Reese and freshman Siale Fakailoatonga, to shoulder the load. Well, so far the two have hauled in two receptions for 18 yards.
Tight end: a position of strength no more.
With Wilson under constant duress, he needs a big-bodied, sure-handed security blanket to keep the chains moving.
Suggested solution: Line up wide receiver Anthony Denham at tight end. Use his blend of size and speed to create mismatches while also re-introducing him to the passing game.
Since opening the season with a six-reception, 113-yard effort, Denham has done little for the offense other than exceptional downfield blocking. Why not give him a hybrid role that utilizes his top strengths: blocking and catching? Makes sense to me.
Don't Shake Things Up Too Much
For every to-do list, there's an equally long list of things not to do.
With yet another 1-4 start to Pac-12 play, the easy reaction is to panic and make drastic changes, but the Utes would be wise to resist that urge. It's not the end of the world—nor is it the end of the season, for that matter.
With four games remaining on the schedule, Utah needs at least two wins to secure a spot in some obscure bowl game. Hey, it's no coveted grand prize, but it's a step in the right direction. A step the team believes it's already set in motion.
Now is not the time to change directions. Now is not the time to shake the boat, rewrite the playbook, or pull a true freshman out of his redshirt year and hand him the keys to the top of the depth chart at quarterback.
Now is the time to regain focus and continue towards the goals set before the season, even if the goals themselves have been lowered since then.
Suggested solution: Consistency breeds consistency, if that makes any sense. The Utes have been good on offense at times and good on defense at times, but rarely at the same time (only the Stanford game comes to mind).
Translation: The talent is undeniably there, but consistent execution is the missing puzzle piece.
Along with the running backs, every position needs repetition to improve to the desired level. Because once things click, this team could be really good.
But we're still waiting for that.