Utah Utes: Half Full Or Half Empty?

Brian NelsonCorrespondent ISeptember 16, 2009

The Utah Utes are an enigma. No one can quite place them. Not yet.

Is this a top ten, BCS-worthy team like last year, that wins but wins ugly?

Is this deja vu, visions of 2005 when Utah fell from grace to mediocrity?

Maybe Utah is somewhere in the middle, like 2006-08 BYU. A 10-3 record, barely top 25?

Ask anyone about Utah's 24-14 win over San Jose State and you'll get an amazing variety of responses.

A coach might say a win is a win. Especially on the road.

The media might remark that Utah's ugly win wasn't nearly as sexy as USC's 56-3 throttling of the Spartans.

A BYU fan will thump his chest and point to a dominating 54-3 victory over Tulane. (Don't worry, they did this type of thumping last year after UCLA. It didn't get them far.)

Most true Utah fans would just shake their head, vocalize their frustration and express grave concern for the upcoming monster of a game in Eugene, Ore.

No worries.

This game was in no way indicative of the caliber of team Utah has. And the team that shows up at Autzen will look nothing like the passionless team that played Saturday night.

In fact, perhaps it speaks well that the Utes can win even when the defensive line (usually their strong suit) takes a day off.

The most promising sign was the efficient play and game management by Terrance Cain. Cain has done execeeded expectations thus far with his live arm, good decisions, accurate throws—especially on the underneath routes and his potent running game.

But most of all, he hasn't made many mistakes. Only one turnover.

I may be optimistic but I'm not that concerned with the Utes overall performance thus far. I know the fans and the media have been harsh.

As a consequence, Utah fell back a spot in the AP poll.

No surprise. The media likes sexy teams and hot stories. When do they ever look at the big picture.

At first I thought I was alone in the glass-is-half-full thinking. Then the coaches poll came out.

Ironically, the coaches saw something entirely different than the AP. While Utah fell back one spot in the AP poll, they took two steps forward in the coaches Poll.

What gives?

Same picture, different viewpoint.

The coaches probably didn't have time to watch the game. They probably have no idea how close this game actually was and could've been. 

But it didn't matter.

The coaches will look at the story told by the box score. Which paints an entirely different picture than what you'll hear from the media (who probably didn't watch the game either).



Utah: 251 yards  San Jose: 22 yards

Any question as to who dominated the line of scrimmage?


Total Offense:

Utah 499 yards  San Jose: 264 yards

Coaches' assumption: Utah ran the ball well. They chewed up some clock. Well-balanced on offense. They gave up some passing yards but completely stuffed the run. 500 yards on offense should probably be five or six TDs.


Third-Down Efficiency

Utah: 8-for-15    San Jose: 3-of-12



Utah: 1 San Jose: 2

Coaches' assumption: Utah was clutch. They moved the chains. Only one turnover meant few short-field opportunities for the offense. That explains the higher yards and fewer points. Utah needs to work on their red zone efficiency and reduce turnovers.

San Jose capitalized on turnovers and maybe had a few big plays receiving, but didn't move the ball consistently.

All in all, Utah dominated but left some points on the table.

No big deal, really. The talent and the performance was there. What was missing was the urgency to seal the deal.


New Utah

The real cause for Utah's struggles is obvious, at least to me. They find themselves in a very unique situation.

They don't have a shot at the national title game. That left the building when Oregon lost to Boise State.

Yet the Utes have garnered enough street cred to get to the BCS simply by winning out. So there's really no benefit to running up the score. It's not 2004 anymore.

So why bother? What's the rush? We don't have to put on the same dog and pony show the Trojans did.

The Utes, particularly the defense, had no urgency. No passion.

They played like a team who knew they were going to win. They knew they were a vastly superior team. They were dominating the line, running the ball at will, and stuffing the run.

It was just a matter of time. When the game got urgent, so did the Utes. Scoring at will, almost. Making it look so easy, as if the points were always there.

But this is indicative of the new Utah. It's all about the "W" now. That's it. It's like playing in the NFL: The only column that matters is the W/L.

Case in point:

What would have been different had Utah beaten New Mexico 24-10 last year instead of 13-10?

Nothing. They get the Sugar Bowl invite. They play Alabama, etc. So did it really matter what that score was Saturday Night against SJSU?

No. Other than the lessons learned: Getting used to the road, finding weak spots, and improving for next week.

These are almost identical to the game played and lessons learned from Alberquerque last year. That team learned they were vulnerable when playing without purpose.

The result?

Utah went on a 4-0 rampage, beating a top-10 team in TCU, posting 63 points on SDSU, crushing a ranked BYU team and pummeling Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

That's Utah football.

I'd expect the same response from the Utes this week. This was their wake-up call. Just as New Mexico was last year and UNLV the year before.

In both cases, Utah responded hungry. Inspired.

Remember TCU, BYU and the Sugar Bowl?

When Utah needed a big play defensively, they penetrated, they scratched and clawed, they got to the QB, to the ball, to the big play.

The great wall of China couldn't have stopped the Utah pass rush.

That was hardly the case Saturday night. Quite the contrary. It was as if the Utes were counting to nine alligator or seven mississippi before rushing.

Maybe they were counting both. That's probably why they were flagged for "sending disconcerting signals to the offense."

Unfortunately, that was about all the disconcerting the defense did that night.

One sack. No turnovers. No hurries.

That's not Utah.

They've had their day off. They've been awakened.

Expect to see a beast of a defense at Autzen, and continued efficiency and consistency from Cain and the offense.

While I think the Ducks have rebounded well from the disastrous first game in Boise, the Utes will be ready to play.



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