Sitting at 3-3 (0-3 Pac-12), the Utah football team is in unfamiliar territory. Never in the recent past have the Utes been out of a conference race so early. As a longtime fan of the Utes, this is not what I expected from a team that has always rose to the challenge of facing bigger and better teams.
The transition to their new conference has been difficult, but not overwhelming. In my opinion, the Utes could easily be sitting at 2-1 in conference play with a chance to play in the conference title game come December. Those dreams and lofty expectations are far from being attainable at this point, but not all is lost. Bowl eligibility is very attainable and something that should motivate this team.
If the Utes were still in the Mountain West Conference and nothing was on the line, we would have to suffer through meaningless home games consisting of New Mexico, Wyoming and UNLV. No disrespect to those programs, but teams in the Pac-12 are on a completely other level in terms of tradition and history.
At the very least, we the fans can enjoy games that would get us excited in years past. A teams record can be thrown out the window because if you don't show up to play, you can get your butt kicked.
Like I said above, I never expected the Utes to win the Pac-12 or even come close to winning the conference in year one, but I did expect them to compete and at least keep the games close.
That's why the previous two conference loses against Washington and Arizona State were so difficult to handle. The Utes were in those games in every sense of the word but managed to turn the ball over at extremely inopportune times.
Look at the game against Arizona State. Even after turning the ball over three times, and not getting one turnover on defense we were only down by one score in the second half. Our defense kept a good Sun Devil offense to field goals multiple times even with having to work on a short field. But after turning the ball over on three consecutive possessions, there wasn't much hope for the Utes.
I really do think this team has very good players and is well coached. I think they have the potential to be very good for years to come.
Injuries haven't helped the Utes either. Say what you will about quarterback Jordan Wynn, but the dude was really coming into his own and had command of the offense and the players around him. I have faith that Jon Hays can get it done but you can't ask much of a guy who doesn't know the offense and had no Division-1 offers coming out of Butte junior college and wasn't even picked up by the Utes until his Division-2 program got shut down in Nebraska.
I wan't to say a few things about the team and their performance against Pittsburgh on Saturday and then look ahead to their matchup against the Cal Bears this upcoming Saturday in San Francisco.
Like I said earlier, Jon Hays is in a tough position but did a decent enough job on Saturday to get the Utes a much needed win. He wasn't spectacular and at times made very bad throws. His touchdown pass against was BYU lucky, and if not for John White's spectacular display, I don't think the Utes come out of there with a win.
A few quick notes and comments about Saturday's game...
The special teams did not look good to say the least. The kickoff return for a touchdown was little-league stupid. These guys need to quit looking to make the big hit (I'm looking at you Greg Bird) and just wrap up. That play would have put them at about the 15-yard line, however it goes for a touchdown thanks to terrible tackling.
The punt block for a touchdown was pathetic. Looking at the pre-snap setup, anyone could have said that they were going to bring heavy pressure. What's the name of the game on defense? Get more of your guys on one side than the offensive team has blockers. That's football.
I think the special teams will be fine but Jay Hill has got to get that figured out. I have faith he will. Those two scores right there kept Pitt hanging around and put the game in doubt until Derrick Shelby could do his thing and show his inner Darrelle Revis.
The D looked very good. To be frank, Pitt is not a great offensive team outside of Ray Graham, who has been one of the leading rushers in the country all season. The game plan going in to this game was to stop him and the Pitt offense would suffer as a result. They accomplished their goal and then some. Anytime you hold a guy to a hundred yards less than his average you are doing well.
Kalani Sitake continues to mix up his looks and confuse the opposition. Looking at the Utes record you could say otherwise, but that has much more to do with the offense being terrible and putting the defense in horrible spots. I have faith in these guys to come up big and rise to the occasion.
The offense looked pretty one-dimensional. I don't think the Utes have much choice other than to play field position, run the ball, and try and control the time of possession.
Everyone and their grandma knew the Utes were going to run the ball Saturday and John White proceeded to run the ball for 170 freaking yards. Pitt was blitzing and stacking the box all night and White was extremely impressive. He runs hard and looks angry out there. I get the feeling that the more people coming at him, the more he loves it.
While White looked good at times, the offensive line was mediocre. I know that sounds hypocritical because they were the ones blocking for him but they can't allow seven sacks. Some of those should be placed on Hays for not getting the ball out faster but still.
Way too many penalties were committed and that needs to be cleaned up. I know a lot has been said about John Cullen in the past few days concerning his false starts, holding penalties, and personal fouls, but I think John is a good player and is just looking out for his guys. Stupid, yes, but I think he is just trying to help his team win. I expect those penalties to decrease this week.
Overall, I think we should be positive and excited for the potential of the rest of the season. The Utes have a chance to win each and every one of their remaining games. According to Sagarin rankings, the Utes don't play a team that is in the top 50 teams in the country. Each of their losses were to teams in the top 30 of Sagarin rankings. I think that is significant.
So......moving forward to this week, against the Cal Bears.
I'm actually really excited about this game. I grew up in the Bay Area and actually lived only about 15 minutes away from Cal's campus in Berkeley. Living in the Bay Area, I know a thing or two about their program. Jeff Tedford's kids actually went to High School with me. So here is my spin.
The Bears have always had tremendous talent. Look at some of the best players in the NFL and several came from Cal. Desean Jackson ring a bell? They have had a stranglehold on Northern California recruiting for many years and only recently has Stanford started to steal some of these kids away from Jeff Tedford and Co. Their recruiting goes beyond the Bay and throughout California and all of the west coast. Cal's best player, receiver Keenan Allen, is actually from North Carolina, so obviously the Bears can recruit wherever they want.
The reason I make this point is that if you look at recruiting rankings every year, the Bears are almost always in the the top 25 in the country in terms of their overall class and top two or three (with Oregon and USC) in the Pac-12. They always have tremendous talent (NFL-type talent) coming to Berkeley, but for some reason the Bears are a consistent mediocre team.
The one year I can remember them having a pretty good team was when I was in High School, they went to the Holiday Bowl but got blown out by Texas Tech.
To be honest, I'm really surprised Tedford still has a job. I'm sure he is a good guy and obviously his players like him and want to play for him, but with the talent he has at his disposal on a consistent basis he should be contending for the Pac-12 at least every couple of years.
This Cal team is a consistent 7-5 or 8-4 type team. They almost always underwhelm and you leave after watching them play and think that they aren't playing to their potential.
It's my opinion that Cal has much more talent than their rival across the bay. But that's what having a quarterback like Andrew Luck can do for your team! Obviously Luck is a great player and still has the potential to be even better, but I think a lot of Stanford's success has been the change in culture as well as positive coaching. You can have all the talent in the world but without good coaching your team is going to be mediocre. Perfect example is Alabama pre-Nick Saban.
In comparison to Cal, Kyle Whittingham has gotten his players to far exceed their potential. I can only hope that the Utes will continue to improve as they improve the quality of their players in order to compete in the Pac-12. If you look at the current roster, almost every player who is making an impact on this team was recruited while Utah was still a member of the MWC. That is amazing. Could you imagine what Coach Whit could do if he had Cal's talent level at his disposal?!
This constant under performing by Cal is the reason I am confident going into Saturday's game that the Utes have a great chance to win. I believe this is the hardest game left on the Utes schedule and with the confidence from last Saturday's win against Pitt, I think the Utes will play well and really put it all out there.
The key to this game, I believe, will be what can Cal quarterback Zach Maynard do against the Ute defense. If you watched last weekend's game against USC, Maynard looked terrible to say the least. He made bad decisions and looked confused the whole night.
Utah's defense will have to play great in order to win this game. I expect Kalani Sitake to draw up a great game plan, and force Maynard to beat the Utes from the pocket, something he is not good at. His skills really show when he can move and get out of the pocket to make plays. If Utah can create some short fields and get a couple turnovers I like our chances. Cal's receivers are too good and will make plays if you give the quarterback time to make good throws so watch for Utah's defense to try and blitz Maynard all night.
Offensively, John White will have to continue to be a workhorse and move the chains to get the Utes in position to score. I don't expect him to run the ball 36 times again, but 20-25 touches are all but guaranteed.
The key for this team is turnovers. You saw against Pitt that even after giving quick points off stupid special teams miscues, the offense continued to try and pound the ball and be patient. Norm Chow is going to try and put Jon Hays in positions to be successful. That is most likely a lot of play-action, bootlegs and quick passes. Hays is not a great pocket passer so I expect Chow will try and get 15-20 passes out of him where there is a low risk involved.
Special Teams will have to play smart and not give up the big play. I expect them to be mistake-free and play good football in this aspect.
Most of the media in the Bay Area are predicting an easy Cal win given the Utes struggles thus far against Pac-12 opposition. While Cal is a decent team, they are nowhere near a Washington, Arizona State or USC. Utah is not a great team either at this point, but I do think they have a better defense and that will be the key to the game.
Both teams are looking for their first conference win this season, so emotions will be high. This game is honestly a toss-up in my opinion. But I predict a Utah win. I'm going to go out on a limb and say Utah wins 27-17. Maynard is going to throw at least one interception, and the Cal offense will give up a fumble. Jon Hays is going to play a good game going 14-24 for 165 yards and two touchdowns and one interception. John White will run for 125 yards and 1 touchdown.
I expect the running game to be good again this week against a highly overrated Cal defense. I can't say this enough...they are very talented but don't know what the heck they are doing out there. Coaching will win this game.
Anyway those are my thoughts. Tell me what you think. Go Utes!!