A new era of Utah football has begun ... and it started just like the old era ended - with a loss. Travis Wilson, in his first-ever start as the Utes' quarterback, fared well enough on the road against an improved UCLA Bruins, but the overall result, unfortunately, mirrored much of what we've come to expect from this year's Utah team.
In their 21-14 loss, which often felt less competitive than the final score indicated, the Utes' defense struggled containing the oft-explosive Bruin offense and found themselves on the field far more than they would've ever liked. Much of this was because of their sketchy third down defense, which failed containing long plays, specifically by UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, that led to sustained Bruin drives. Though they ultimately managed only 21 points, it proved killer after Utah's first offensive score of the game drew them to within seven at the very end.
This pattern of defensive breakdowns has plagued Utah all conference season and is a big reason they sit in an 0-3 hole. Saturday, it was lethal throughout the game where undisciplined play - either in penalties or failure to tackle - led to some very frustrating moments and a deficit far too large for a quarterback like Wilson to pull Utah out of ... even if it wasn't all that large at all.
That might be the biggest concern coming out of Pasadena. For much of the game, the Utes were operating under a one-score deficit and yet, it felt so much more because of how the offense failed to turn drives into scores and convert on fourth down. Even with the defense, in all their ugliness, holding a pretty potent UCLA offense to 21 points, it was still enough for the Bruins to win in a somewhat decisive manner.
The good news is that for his first start ever, especially on the road, Wilson looked okay. Yes, there was the interception and he did look tentative and overwhelmed at times, but for the first time, really, since the 2010 season, I saw some movement down field and an offense that, when it wasn't vanishing on 3rd and 4th down, looked like, you know, an offense.
Their ability to sustain drives, even when they didn't end in scores, is infinitely more impressive than watching an offense that produces three and outs every single drive. Against UCLA, Utah only had two three and outs. A week prior, against USC, the Utes had seven. So, there is definitely improvement there and I'm excited to see how that progresses as Wilson progresses and gains more experience.
But during that transition period, during the time it will take Wilson to become a legitimate Pac-12 quarterback, this is a team that will sink or swim based solely on its defense. You just can't ask a true freshman quarterback to win you the games in a BCS conference ... you just can't. As much as we'd love for Wilson to be our savior, we've also got be cautious with how much pressure we thrust upon his shoulders. He might be the future, but he's also now only started one game and we must remember that.
So, for Utah to make that push for a bowl game, it's imperative the defense step up and do its job. They've got to get a handle on the fundamentals because Saturday, they were a mess in this regard. I don't think I've ever seen a Utah defense struggle this much and, for someone who has an awful lot of faith in Kyle Whitttingham, it's increasingly alarming that they would struggle to this degree. They were supposed to be the strongest unit by far this season, and while that might be technically true only by default, they've been so underwhelming in many of their games this season that it's hard to pinpoint exactly where the problem stems. Is it coaching ... talent ... or is it just inexperience and youth? Maybe it's all three. Whatever the reason, we need better production from them for Utah to succeed, especially now that Whittingham has entrusted the entire offense to a true freshman.
That means the future is now, baby, and we've got to embrace it. Wilson is our guy and I'm excited to see what he can do. I just wish the scheduled eased up, because the next week is going to be brutal for a one-game starter. This really is going to be baptism by fire and I hope it doesn't have any unintentional consequences for Wilson and the program. Here's to him being up to the task and here's to the defense pulling their share ... 'cause we need 'em.