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Utah's offense faces tough test in 2012

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If you could come up with one word to describe Utah's offense last season, what would it be?








I think all those words are apt and even though the offense did show signs of success at certain points in certain games, it was rarely consistent and pretty disappointing for much of the season.

In fact, the Utes' offense was so bad in 2011, they finished dead last in the Pac-12 in yards per game (308 - nearly 40 less than Colorado), passing yards per game, and sat at the bottom in almost every category that didn't include rushing.

Yet even their running game wasn't all that stellar. John White IV was, for sure, but he was essentially it and that meant teams with a more evenly dispersed running attack finished ahead of Utah in rushing yards per game - that includes seven of the Pac-12's twelve teams.

Not good.

Much of this was due to Jon Hays, who while serviceable, just did not have the ability to put together a consistent offense. Even in games Utah won, where it looked like he was establishing something, he was so inconsistent at times that it became very apparent, very fast, that he just was not the guy to lead Utah successfully.

That's not a surprise, as most programs are not going to rely on a Division II quarterback to lead their offense outside a worst case scenario and that's exactly what the Utes faced last season when Jordan Wynn, who had been injury prone, went down and was lost for the season.

To his credit, Hays stepped up and did the best job possible. But he was bailed out, more than once, by White in the backfield and really, the offense only succeeded because White was able to carry it for the second half of the season. Even then, though, things weren't perfect - as was on full display in their final two games of the season.

In that game against Colorado, Hays was actually pretty productive, finishing with his best completion rate of the season, and passing for 185 yards - the third best performance of the season. Yet the Utes lost and the offense was pretty abysmal, even if Hays wasn't. Now while White went down early in the third quarter, Tauni Vakapuna actually stepped in and played well enough to get Utah back into the game - even scoring on the drive he replaced White.

Hays did manage a touchdown pass to Shawn Asiata to bring the Utes within three, but the fourth quarter saw a comedy of errors.

Hays and Vakapuna actually moved Utah's offense down the field, to Colorado's five, down three early in the fourth quarter and then Hays was sacked for a loss of four, which proved the difference for Coleman Petersen's 26 yard field goal - as he missed it.

On the Utes' next drive, Vakapuna fumbled, dealing the team a huge blow. Fortunately, they still managed to get the ball back and Hays guided Utah past midfield and then was aided by a huge personal foul that moved Utah all the way to Colorado's 22 yard line.

That's when things fell apart. Hays, on a first and ten, was sacked for a seven yard loss, fumbled the ball and was lucky enough to have John Cullen recover it. On the very next play, though, Hays was again sacked, and again pushed back seven yards. Like earlier in the third quarter, with a chance to tie, Petersen again misses the field goal and Utah lost the game.

Now I am not pinning the entire loss on Hays. There is enough blame from that debacle to go around - whether it was Petersen's misses, the lack of John White, coaching or weather - and Hays is only responsible for a sliver of it.

Unfortunately, in a game that close, a sliver proved to be the difference. Had Hays not been sacked twice on that final drive, Petersen very well could have made that field goal, which, from my recollection (potentially wrong) was not terribly off, and sent the game into overtime.

In the end, that didn't happen. No amount of what ifs will change that fact Utah lost the game and lost out on a chance to play in the Pac-12 championship game. Fair enough. Let's move on.

Hays was able to redeem himself, somewhat, in the Sun Bowl. I say somewhat because, again, you have a situation where the offense is terribly inconsistent throughout most of the game and that puts Utah in a mighty big hole heading into the fourth quarter.

To his credit, he stepped up in that fourth and made some huge passes. But he was only in the position to make those passes because, unfortunately, he, and the offense, made mistakes early in the game. The biggest came when, after Georgia Tech had scored to go up 17-10 and DeVonte Christopher returned the kickoff 68 yards to Georgia Tech's 30, Hays threw an interception on the very next play that was then returned 74 yards for the touchdown.

In a span of seconds, the Utes went from appearing to position themselves for the tie to falling behind 24-10 with a little less than five minutes to go in the quarter. I'm sure I am not the only one who thought the game was over at that point. I'm glad I was wrong. Hays proved me wrong.

But he had to work his way out of a hole and it's never productive for an offense to be in that position.

With Hays, who was bailed out an awful lot by his running game, err, John White, the offense played with fire and in some instances, it definitely got burned. It doesn't mean we shouldn't be grateful for his contribution, because we should be all things considered. It just means, when you get down to it, Hays is probably not a starting quarterback in the Pac-12. I think even Hays, a year ago, would have agreed with that assessment.

What we get with Hays is an okay backup that we know will keep us barely afloat. He's a lifeboat and I can't think of any better way of describing him than that. When your ship goes down, you're definitely going to to climb into that lifeboat and hope for the best, but it's not something you want to use for a cross-ocean voyage.

So, I guess that makes Jordan Wynn the cruise ship. It might not be a luxury liner, but it's nice enough - just as long as it doesn't sink. If Wynn can make this adventure unscathed, we will have a very good offense. If he goes down, if we have to climb aboard one of those lifeboats again, things are probably going to be shaky.

Hays might have kept us from drowning in '11, but we came dangerously close at times.

Hopefully that isn't the case this year. As much as I like Hays, as much as I respect what he did here last year, and how tough he was at times, I hope we don't have to see him starting again. If he does start, it means our ship hit an iceberg and we're once again piling into the lifeboat and holding on for dear life.