The Utah Utes' transition into the Pac-12 has been an eye-opening experience for the program, as well as a mouth-opening one for the doubters. And that's to be expected. Respect is earned, not given in a BCS Conference.
Utah appeared well on its way to earning that respect after a 4-2 start to the season, including a home win over No. 5-ranked Stanford, but has since lost three consecutive games by a combined 28 points. Injuries are piling up (add starting quarterback Travis Wilson to the list of casualties), the offensive line is struggling, the defense is feeling the pressure and answers are nowhere within reach.
Despite all that, the team is competing, but it's just not showing up in the standings, where it matters most.
“We’re standing toe-to-toe with the best the conference has to offer and I said that in the press conference on Saturday night, but we’ve got to find a way to get more wins,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said to Dirk Facer of Deseret News. “We're more competitive, but it’s not about being competitive. It's about getting W’s, and so, that’s the next hurdle we got to get over — is finding a way to win these games.”
So the search for another win continues Saturday at Autzen Stadium, against a very motivated Oregon Ducks team fresh off its first loss of the season. For the Utes to have any realistic shot at maybe, possibly pulling off an upset, all (and I mean ALL) of the following must happen:
Win Turnover Battle
Duh, I know. Let's get the obvious one out of the way first. No other single stat, other than points scored, more closely correlates to victories than the turnover battle. This season alone, Utah is 3-0 when winning the turnover battle and 0-4 when losing. While winning the turnover battle this weekend may not guarantee a "W," it's definitely a step in the right direction.
Too bad Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has yet to throw a single interception this entire season, compared to 22 touchdowns through the air. The sophomore signal-caller is efficient running and throwing the ball, so the Utes defense must...
Pressure Marcus Mariota
Of all, this seems the most attainable. Led by defensive ends Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard, Utah gets after opposing quarterbacks as well as any other team in the nation. In fact, the Utes lead the nation in sacks at 3.67 per game. And with Mariota bothered by a knee injury, expect the defense to apply pressure throughout the afternoon.
After all, it may be the only way to force Mariota into making mistakes—if that's even possible.
Establish Passing Game
Normally, teams establish the running game to open up the passing game. However, this is no normal game, especially with former walk-on Adam Schulz starting at quarterback. Against a stacked box, the Utes have to soften the defense with a few successful pass plays early on.
Some early completions could also help Schulz build his confidence and get into a nice rhythm. Otherwise, running backs Bubba Poole and Co. will have no room whatsoever to maneuver, eat the clock and keep the Ducks offense off the field.
Schulz, according to Coach Whittingham, has the strongest arm on the team, per a report by Mike Sorensen of Deseret News, but is it accurate enough to move the chains and put points on the scoreboard? Saturday we find out.
Convert Third Downs
Ahh, the team's Achilles' heel. In Pac-12 play, the Utes are converting just 32.2 percent of third downs, which is actually slightly above their 31.7 percent in nonconference games. But either way you look at it, it's been ugly.
More than anything, converting enough third downs to beat Oregon comes down to picking up chunks of yardage on first and second down. You know, 3rd-and-3 is a lot easier to manage than 3rd-and-long. And that's on co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson to dial up the right plays for their new quarterback. Expect a lot of screens, slants and quick strikes to receivers in space.
What is priority number one?
The Utes have to play perfect football to come away with a win. At this point, I don't think they have it in them. The defense will keep them close but ultimately run out of gas. Oregon wins 41-20.