No BCS bowl game.
No conference championship.
No 10-win season.
No living up to preseason hype.
No point in playing the remainder of the schedule? Not exactly.
I've used this blog as a place to air out my concerns over Utah football and I hastily wrote them off this year. Yet while I'm pretty confident that Utah has a zero chance of winning the conference, I think there is still a lot to play for this season. Most importantly, the Utes need to regain some respect and show the conference that the midseason slump was just that, a slump and not a trend. While I had hoped for a record better than 5-4 heading into the final weeks of the season, finishing on a 4 game winning streak wouldn't be all that bad. Yes I will still have concerns, especially around the fact that for the second straight year Utah has lost to teams they shouldn't have lost to. But it will show improvement and that's a big step in the right direction. Anything less however will be a severe disappointment and will definitely lead me to believe Kyle Whittingham is not the man to coach this team.
Looking at the three games left on the schedule, I believe Utah is capable of winning all three, but don't have faith that they will. So how does Utah finish this season strong and regains some of that respect lost during the middle part of this season? Well it's not an easy answer, because I'm not so sure Utah even knows how to succeed, especially with Ratliff at quarterback. But I do believe it's something that can be done, if the Utes come together and actually field a competent enough team.
Firstly, Utah needs to address the problems in their losses this year. Against UCLA, they were obviously outmatched and their offense struggled at producing enough yards and points. Defensively, the Utes played well, but struggled down the stretch once the offense's play fizzled out. Utah's offense ran best when they were using the spread option, however they failed to utilize that during the game and it didn't help Utah converted on zero third downs.
In their loss to Boise State, turnovers were the key reason to why the Broncos dominated the way they did. All but one Boise State score came on a short field and if Utah had kept the turnovers in check, the game probably would have been a lot closer than it actually was. Instead, Ratliff and Grady had what seemed like more passes to the opposing team than they did to their own receivers. Boise State rocked Utah and it was clear the Utes weren't a very good team, especially with Ratliff running the show.
In their loss to Wyoming, the turnover bug killed them again. Rattled early, Ratliff failed to find his game and the Cowboys rolled Utah like fine Cuban cigar. It was an ugly display that was nearly identical to the one a couple weeks earlier against the Broncos.
Against the Lobos, the Utes actually didn't lose the game because of turnovers. In fact they had zero and built a strong halftime lead, only to watch it slip away and a lot of that had to do with the fact the coaches failed to make the adjustments to the ones made by New Mexico. The Lobos had success on a couple of offensive plays and Utah failed to stop them, so they kept running them and those plays ripped up Utah's secondary. That loss stung because the Utes looked good for one half and lost in the second.
Outside of the New Mexico game, it's the Utes offense that had cost them in their first three losses. A lot of that has to do with the poor play of Brett Ratliff and his inability to build off of a win. It's clear he lacks confidence and a lot of that stems from his poor play in the UCLA and Boise State games. However between those games were solid performances against NAU, Utah State and San Diego State -- games in which Ratliff did not build on. Ratliff had his best game as a Ute last week against UNLV, but their defense is nothing to write home about. Yet even playing a poor defensive team like UNLV, the game should advance Ratliff's confidence and if he can have another solid game against Colorado State, he may be just good enough for Utah's offense to coast into Colorado Springs and gut out a victory against the Falcons.
That would set up a big showdown at home against BYU and Ratliff has already shown he can beat the Cougars. But it isn't just Ratliff's fault for Utah's struggles, because a lot of it falls on the shoulders of this coaching staff. Whittingham has failed to motivate his team and that brings us to the next point.
Secondly, the Utes need their coach to motivate. Last season, after getting beaten at home by San Diego State, Kyle Whittingham worked his magic and Utah finished the year winning their final four of five. That strong finish was promising, and it's something Whittingham and Utah will need to do this time around as well. Last year it started with San Diego State and ended with a dominate win against Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl. This year I hope it started with an embarrassing loss to New Mexico and ends with whatever bowl game Utah plays in at the end of the year. However, I don't want another let down game and if the Utes do lose their 5th of the season and don't beat BYU, it's going to be very difficult -- if not impossible -- for me to find anything positive about this season.
I've always believed that good coaches motivate their team when they're down and great coaches never put their team in the position to be down. Whittingham has not proven he's a great coach, but he can prove in the final weeks he's a good coach. A good coach can turn into a great coach, but I fear a bad coach is always going to be a bad coach, no matter how much time you give him to succeed. Whittingham has a mountain to climb and it will be a challenge, but it's not impossible. He needs to motivate this team to the point they actually believe they can win in the final weeks and if he can do that, I'll be the first to applaud him. Use the UNLV game as a motivational tool, then use last year's Colorado State loss as a revenge tool. No coach should ever be above using revenge as a motivator and this year's Utah team should remember that night in Fort Collins very well. Replay that game over and over and over again until it's the day of the game. In fact, copy the game and send it home with the players and demand they watch it nightly. Beat it into their head so hard that they can't wait to get out onto the football field and return the favor to Colorado State by beating them. You do that and you're one step closer to a strong finish.
Thirdly, the Utes need to play with a killer instinct. This goes beyond offensive production and motivation and relies on them wanting to kill the opposition. Utah lost their game against New Mexico because they failed to kick the Lobos when they were down and instead allowed them back into the game. That can't happen in the next three games, or they will end the season 5-7. They need to build a lead and when they build that lead they need to still pound them until they're black and blue. Pound them into submission and then pound them even more. Grind them into the ground, hit them with the force of a train and throw the ball like a possessed Johnny Unitas on crack. If Utah's up 14 in the third quarter, don't just sit on the lead. Make the plays needed to win, not the plays that you think will keep you from losing.
I thought TCU was the biggest game Kyle Whittingham would ever coach and I recant that. These next three games will be the biggest in Kyle Whittingham's career because there's a helluva difference between 5-7 or even 6-6 and 9-4. If Whittingham is going to be Utah's long term coach, it starts with these three games. Defeat Colorado State, Air Force and then hammer BYU and a lot will be forgotten, lose and Whittingham better hope he's wearing thick enough pants because his seat is going to be on fire.