What's happened to the Utes?

SOUTH BEND IN - NOVEMBER 13: Head coach Kyle Whittingham of the Utah Utes watches as his team takes on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 13 2010 in South Bend Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Utah 28-3. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

It's remarkable how hopeless one can become over the course of only a few weeks. It wasn't that long ago we were celebrating an impressive and dominant win over the Iowa St. Cyclones. In the aftermath of that win, it looked as if the Utes were hitting their stride. 

Instead, it appears they peaked. Since that game, Utah has slowly descended into the mess we're seeing today - a team lost and without confidence. 

What happened between that game in Ames and what we all witnessed Saturday in South Bend? 

For starters, I think it's time to concede that this team wasn't as good as we thought they were. That Iowa State win was nice - but this is the same Cyclones who were blitzed by Oklahoma a week after we took them to the woodshed and were even wrecked by a listless Colorado team this past Saturday. 

They're not very good. The win obviously inflated our confidence in this team and fooled us into believing they were a legitimate contender for a BCS bowl game. 

Since that Cyclones game, though, Utah has struggled. A week later, they produced a rather uninspiring performance against the Wyoming Cowboys and maybe that should have signaled things weren't as good as they seemed. 

So where has it gone wrong? 

Offense

The key to the early success this season came from the offensive side of the ball. For a while there, it seemed the Utes had put together the most explosive offense we've seen in Salt Lake City in six years. They were demoralizing teams with their ability to quickly put points on the board and that smothering gauntlet appeared to really set the tone for this year's team. 

Through their first five games, Utah averaged just a shade under 50 points per game. In fact, they scored 50 or more points in three consecutive games - including 68 against the Cyclones.

Over their past five games, the Utes are averaging 25 points per game. Pretty much half of their total in the first five. Of course, this could be attributed to the tougher schedule. But you've got to remember this point total is inflated by the 58 the Utes dropped on Colorado State. You take that out of the equation and in their last three games, Utah is averaging just 13 points. We expected the point total to decrease with the increase of tougher competition. I don't think, however, anyone expected that rapid of a change. 

Utah is losing because their offense has struggled in four of the last five games. That is in stark contrast to what the offense was doing against lesser opponents like UNLV, New Mexico, San Jose State and even Iowa State.

Yet the Cyclones aren't dramatically worse than the Fighting Irish. Certainly the offense could have halved that point total against Notre Dame, right? 

But they didn't even come close to 34 points Saturday. They didn't even sniff 20 points. 

Why? Why has the offense regressed so much since that Iowa State win?

 

To be clear, I am not blaming Shaky Smithson for the offensive troubles. He's a fantastic player. But I believe that great talent has masked some of the offensive problems.

Because he's such a potent returner, teams have now focused on him to the point where he has struggled breaking off huge returns - especially on punts. Prior to Wyoming, Smithson was averaging about 89 yards a game on punt returns. That included touchdowns against UNLV and New Mexico (as well as a near-touchdown against the Cyclones). In the last five games, he's averaging only 26 yards a game. 

His best performance in that stretch came against Wyoming, where he had 111 yards. Since, teams have been effective in shutting him down and because of that, more and more drives have started further and further in the Utes' own territory instead of toward midfield like we had been accustom to seeing earlier in the season. 

That, in my opinion, has played a huge role in why the offense hasn't been able to establish much over the last five games. Smithson is such a dynamic player that he almost gained the offense twenty yards before each drive. That's huge when you realize this is the difference between starting somewhere on your own twenty as opposed to around your own forty. 

What the offense was good at doing was capitalizing on short fields. It explains why they were producing one of the best scoring offenses and yet, their yards per game wasn't near that level. 

Since opposing teams have game planned against Smithson, Utah's offense has stagnated and I think this is a big reason why they've not been able to produce over the last few weeks. It was all mirage. The offense was succeeding because they were starting so many drives with great field position. We've seen against TCU and now Notre Dame that the Utes can't sustain long-lasting drives that go the length of the field. 

They've done it occasionally, but especially against the Irish, almost every single drive of theirs started so deep into their territory that they rarely crossed the 50 yard line. It flipped the field, positioned Notre Dame for a couple big scores and ultimately ended any chance of Utah winning. 

That is a huge concern. The fact this offense can't move the ball on its own and appears to only work with the help of Smithson and sometimes Reggie Dunn on punt and kickoff returns is a giant red flag. That is not how you run a successful offense. A successful offense must be self-sustaining. It can't just succeed off turnovers and short fields caused by a great return team. Because those aspects of the game do not always happen. We've seen the last few weeks how difficult it is to create turnovers and break off great returns when the opposing team is focused on making sure you don't do just that.

So why can't the offense move the ball on its own? 

 

 

I like Jordan Wynn. I still think he can be a good quarterback at Utah. But the facts are the facts and he can't control this offense. He is struggling and it's not just against good defenses. He struggled against Wyoming. He struggled against Air Force and he struggled against Notre Dame. All three of those teams have produced bad to okay defenses - but nothing great. That is a problem.

The heart of an offense is always going to be its quarterback. You can't run a successful offense if your quarterback isn't successful in his game. Right now, Wynn is not playing like someone who is successful and confident in his game. 

Case in point - the Utes desperately needed a first down against the Irish in the first half of Saturday's game when Wynn took off for the marker and slid. He was a yard short. He was short because he chose to slide over bulldozing ahead and gaining that extra yard. 

It's all mentality and he was playing with the mentality of a scared kid on that play. He'd rather not take the hit than go and try for the first down. That lack of hustle is really devastating because it trickles down to the remainder of the team. If the quarterback is soft, then the offensive line is going to be soft and then the runners and then the receivers. 

Right now, Utah's offense is soft. That is hard to accept after how well they looked so early in the season. 

The coaches have a difficult decision to make these next two games. Do they put all their confidence in Wynn, hoping he'll get it turned around, or do they go with Terrance Cain

Who is best equipped to run this offense? 

Now remember, the offense Utah runs thrives on the quarterback's ability to run. 

Seeing what happened Saturday, are we confident in believing Wynn can do that? 

Of course, even with a change at quarterback, there are going to have to be improvements.

 

  • Play Calling 

 

I am disappointed with the play calling. I'm not seeing any diversity in the calls here. How many times are we going to see a draw play on third down? Whatever happened to throwing it deep? Why so many short passes that either happen behind the line of scrimmage or slightly ahead of it - which almost always nets the Utes three yards or less? 

It's unimaginative. I had these concerns last year after the BYU game and they have resurfaced. It seems these coaches run about three plays a game. We laughed when that happened against Air Force because it was the Falcons and we were all content with getting out of Colorado Springs with a win - but now it is an obvious trend. 

Play diversity is imperative for this team to succeed and lately, they have utterly failed here. It has left the team broken.

Utah is hurting right now. The last time the Utes scored so few points in a two-game span was all the way back in 1983. 27 years ago. How incriminating of a statistic is that? 

For the Utes to bounce back, they're going to need to improve on the offensive end. That means all around. Not just Wynn, but the coaches on down to the offensive line. Every aspect of this offense has failed the last three weeks in some manner and it has led to two of the worst performances of the Kyle Whittingham era. 

If that doesn't change, this will be the worst three to four game stretch we've witnessed here in Salt Lake City since the fading days of Ron McBride. 

It's hard to imagine, when Utah was 8-0, that this was even possible. But it is. Now let's hope the coaches can right this ship and the team can win out because if you think it's ugly now - imagine what it'll look like if the Utes drop their final two games. 

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