Maybe there is nothing wrong with Utah and this was just 'one of those games' that happens from time to time. It's important to not overreact to one contest and we shouldn't do so here. This is, after all, a team many felt good about just hours before kickoff Saturday night.
There is that old coaching saying, you've probably heard Lou Holtz butcher it with a lisp sometimes on ESPN, that says you're never as good as your best win or as bad as your worst loss ... or somethin' like that. It's generally true. The success of a team ebbs and flows as the season progresses and you don't have to look any further than last year to see this happen with Utah. There were mighty highs (BYU) and some depressingly low lows (Cal and Colorado). In the end, the Utes were probably an above average team, but that's about it.
So, it's entirely possible things really aren't as bad as they felt Saturday. Maybe it was the perfect storm. Maybe the coaching staff failed to have the team ready ... maybe they wilted in the hot Tempe heat. Whatever the reason to describe Saturday's debacle (and it was), there is no certainty it will bleed into the remaining games. This team could bounce back in a couple weeks, upset USC and give us hope again that maybe they've figured it out.
Maybe they won't. Maybe it'll take another game before things get going. But who's to say, at the end of November, we're not looking back at September 22nd as just an aberration ... an ugly loss, for sure, but one that didn't define the season and definitely didn't spell doom for the program.
I'm willing to concede this is entirely possible. I guess we won't know for a couple weeks - if not longer - whether this is true, but the possibility is there.
Of course, there is another possibility and one that no one wants to talk about. It's filled with a lot of struggle and nights like Saturday. It's one we have to start considering because it has the harder to accept outcome. If Saturday was an anomaly, we just move on and enjoy the remainder of the season while hoping it doesn't happen again. But if Saturday is evidence of some deficiencies, then we have a problem here. And it leads us to the overall question posed in this post - what could be so wrong as to lead to what we witnessed in Arizona?
In terms of overall talent, Utah looked completely out-matched. ASU was quicker and more athletic on both ends of the field and that left the Utes' offense and defense performing pretty badly. It was men among boys out there at times and it showed. Even the Cal game didn't look this bad last year because at least the defense did something early enough to keep Utah in the game. But Saturday, against what is a good, but hardly great Sun Devil offense, the Utes looked absolutely confused and slow and so un-Whittingham like. That last part is the most damaging because we have been conditioned to believe the defense, no matter what, will always be our strength and while it was last weekend solely by default, the realities of this program, especially this year, kind of came crashing down on that field in Sun Devil Stadium.
The defense was not good. Arizona State could have torched Utah for 60 or 70 points if they truly wanted to. The last time I saw this defense play that badly was in the TCU game in 2010 ... but those Frogs were a top-three team. The Sun Devils are good, but they're not 'contending for national championship' good.
I think it's becoming a sobering reality that Utah is just not as good as we thought they were. They're a very good non-BCS program, but that's probably only good enough for the middle of the Pac-12 ... especially this year. On talent alone, if ASU was any indication, we just aren't there yet.
This shouldn't surprise no one because Kyle Whittingham has hinted at this in the past. We've been told that it will take a couple recruiting cycles to close that talent gap. So, if you buy into the idea that we're two or three recruiting cycles behind most of the conference, then you've got to accept we're just not good enough and talented enough to win the Pac-12. The depth isn't there. The athleticism isn't there. The raw talent just isn't there. Now that sounds like I'm going to throw the entire team under the bus, but that isn't the case. There are talented players on this program and I believe, over time, we'll come to see that even more. But in the Pac-12, you need talent stretching every position - from the offense, the defense and even the special teams.
In the past, the Utes were talented, but not necessarily at every position and the positions they were talented at lacked the depth needed to compete in a real conference. In those years where they were really good, like 2008, everything came together to make it so. But that's just one season. We kind of forget that there was a 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 - seasons where this team would have struggled in the Pac-12 ... if not more than they have the last 10 conference games.
We are good as a Mountain West team, but how does good transfer over into this conference? While Utah has had one full recruiting class under their belt as a Pac-12 member, most the talent on this year's team was still recruited when the Utes were a non-BCS member. That talent didn't magically change on July 1st, 2011 when we officially became a member of the Pac-12. If what Whittingham says is true, we probably aren't going to make much noise in this conference until the talent gap has shrunk a bit. Right now, even against programs like Arizona State, whose recruiting is roughly right in the middle of the conference the past four or so seasons, we're still not there and we probably won't be there next year.
Which means we might have to start using the dreaded R word ... rebuilding.
Utah could be rebuilding. Unfortunately, unlike in rebuilds of past, there just isn't that many gimmies on the schedule anymore to help ease through the process. Instead, we have to take our lumps and hope, one day, we'll be back and good again.
Now that might sound dire and negative, and maybe it is. Maybe we aren't rebuilding. I mean, we're definitely not rebuilding at the level seen in Pullman and Boulder ... but in a sense, we have to agree, even if we mostly disagree, that there are areas where this team just isn't up to snuff with their Pac-12 comrades.
The offensive line is just as bad, if not worse, than any of us had ever imagined during fall camp. They are bad and what's worse, they lack depth. Utah does not have a BCS offensive line and without one, they're going to be picked apart by aggressive defenses. Todd Graham and Gary Andersen pretty much wrote the book on how to defend the Utes' already anemic offense.
Not having a good offensive line trickles down to every other aspect of your offense. Jon Hays was not bad Saturday night, but he was never given the chance to be good. The ground game wasn't good, either, even though Kelvin York showed some great potential. John White IV is injured, I think it's clear as day that he is, and yet the coaches kept putting him in, even when York was tearing it up. So, that left the offense essentially doomed from the start and as we saw against Utah State and, at times against BYU, if the opposing defensive line is aggressive, if Hays doesn't have time to throw and if the running game can't get much going, you're pretty much going to shut down the Utes' offense.
Arizona State did. This offense might be worse than last year's and that's saying something because last year's offense was downright awful. The Utes can't do much about that this season. They've got an inexperienced line, one that has faced injury, and it's starting to show. So, they're left recruiting bigger (is that possible?) and better linemen in hopes that, a couple years from now, this isn't a problem anymore.
The biggest problem today, though, and I hate saying it, is that this offense just has way too many liabilities out there. Whether it's failing to block, create holes or exploit weaknesses in the defense ... from the top down, this offense just isn't good and that probably isn't going to change this year.
At least last year's offense could lean on its running game. So far this season, even though York played well Saturday, they haven't been able to do that consistently. This running game has been awful in three of their first four games and that fourth game, it really wasn't all that great.
So, I think it's far more a talent problem than anything else. That doesn't mean the coaches aren't absolved of their sins, though. Kyle Whittingham has absolutely botched the quarterback situation here at Utah since Brian Johnson left and we are paying for it today. Sure, maybe lining up Alex Smith under center with this line wouldn't amount to any better results, but again we find ourselves with a limited quarterback and not many more options. I guess there is the potential of Travis Wilson, but who can really get on board throwing him behind this line in conference play?
I also think the case can be made that Brian Johnson is not ready and we kind of expected that. The problem is that we also expected to be better this year and when you're breaking in a rookie coordinator with talent problems, things can go south quickly. It's easier to mask those growing pains when you've got the talent to do so ... it's not, though, when the talent is just as uncertain and questionable as the coaching.
Of course, some will read that as me saying Johnson should go. I'm not. I've been consistent throughout that we need to give Johnson a chance. This offense can't afford another turnover in coordinators. We've had too many the past four years, probably more than any BCS team in the country, and that instability is a direct result of our problems today. Even if Johnson doesn't pan out, we can't assume that just four games into his career. So, whether fans like it or not, we've got to accept the growing pains and hope that, down the road, we'll get things straightened out.
And that takes us back to the idea of rebuilding. It's entirely possible this season will be a lost season. No one wants to say it, and I hate typing it, but with the way things have gone in the first four weeks, with the talent gap becoming increasingly evident, we just might have to concede this team won't get there for a couple more years and until we do, there is a chance for struggle.
Time, ultimately, might be the best rectifier ... even if no one likes the wait.