Utah's offense the first few weeks of the college football season looked like a smorgasbord of every college football offense imaginable. It's as if Brian Johnson took one of Franklin Roosevelt's most famous quotes, "It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something," to heart when running the Utes' offense the past few weeks. They certainly tried every method possible.
Against USC, though, there were signs of Utah actually committing to an offensive identity. The Utes, finally, ran some semblance of the spread ... something Johnson had discussed running throughout spring and fall camps.
To be sure, the offense isn't exactly explosive and they definitely had their issues, but it was nice watching a real offense unfold out there. I don't know if the coaching staff specifically waited until last Thursday to unveil this offense, or if Kyle Whittingham finally trusted Johnson enough to let him run his own offense - but whatever the reason, I like it. I like it because at least now I know what we're doing and even if there are some kinks to work out, it's important this offense settle on a philosophy instead of taking an all of the above approach.
So, what does this mean for Saturday? For one, I hope to see a continuation of what we saw Thursday night ... at least in the first half. The offense was aggressive until things got real and it looked as if Utah might actually be in a dog fight. I didn't like how, in the second half, the team became more and more conservative on the offensive end and I do believe that played a big part in why they had so many three and outs - especially when they needed a couple first downs to sustain drives.
But this is a good template and there were a lot of things I liked. The quick passes are basically where Jon Hays excels and that's what moved the ball a great deal of the first half. He also had a fantastic slant pass to DeVonte Christopher for an important touchdown to put Utah up 21-10. That's what I would like to see more of because if this offense can at least produce a serviceable passing game, the running game will improve because of it. We saw this Thursday, even though, at times, it stagnated. John White IV had his best game of the season, even if, technically, he had more yards in both the Northern Colorado and Utah State games and that's not a coincidence. The passing game opened up the ground game.
What this offense did last week was compensate for their weak offensive line and though I'm not naive enough to believe the woes are behind us or that the offensive line still isn't a liability, they were improved Thursday night because of the play calling and the diversity of the offense.
That makes this weekend important for momentum. Utah had its best offensive performance against a FBS team in their loss to the Trojans and they need that to continue against UCLA Saturday. There has to be some progress, or at least some sustainability, because if this offense reverts to its pre-USC levels, then every gain made out of last week will be lost.
Brian Johnson can't allow that to happen. Yes, I understand this is all a work in progress, but for the psyche of the team, especially the offense, development will be key.
So, five games into the season and the Utes are bolstered by finding some true offensive identity. That's a start, and a good one at that, but they've got to keep it rolling ... especially against the poorer defenses they're about to face in the coming weeks - at least compared to their last five opponents.
UCLA offers them a chance to do just that. I've already gone over how questionable the Bruin defense is and that should give Utah an even larger opening to see progression on the offensive end. If it doesn't happen Saturday, though, I guess this is all moot and we go back to the drawing board ... or at least concede that the growing pains will far outweigh the small increments of success.
That's why Saturday is so critical and not just for the offense, but for the season. While I think the prospects have improved since the ASU debacle, they're so fragile right now that we could see regression if this team isn't ready to fight at near the level they were against USC. So, they need to come out with that same mentality and vigor. In fact, it's imperative for the sake of the season that they do.
I'm excited for this weekend ... if only to see whether this team can sustain its gains. I hope they can and if they do, we've got a season on our hands.