Today was a shorter press conference for head coach Kyle Whittingham, but topics like Oregon State, special teams, and the starting quarterback were all touched on.
"We're in preparation for Oregon State. Obviously we were off last week. We started practicing Thursday of last week. We gave the guys a couple of days off after the UCLA game. Came in and watched the film on Monday, a couple of down days for them, and then back on Thursday. So we're right in the middle of preparation," said Whittingham.
Utah is coming off a bye week prior to the Thursday contest at Oregon State. Having the bye allowed players to rest up following the exciting win over UCLA.
"We are right about midseason, so we got our legs back underneath of us. We start to get a little leg-weary about midyear so it came at a good point in time for that. Got some downtime for the guys. It's a little different when you come back after a bye for a Thursday contest rather than a Saturday, so it's not your typical bye week. I think we made the most of it, which we try to do every time we have a bye," said Whittingham.
When Utah released their depth chart last week, both Kendal Thompson and Travis Wilson were listed as co-starters. I believe not announcing the starter was the right decision because it forces Oregon State to prepare for both quarterbacks. The decision will not be announced until the game starts on Thursday.
"That's the plan going forward [that everyone will find out on Thursday]. It's not a huge strategic move, but why tip your hand if you don't have to, and we don't have to. It's not like the NFL where you have to declare what's going on. They've handled themselves very well in practice. You'd expect both of them to work hard like they have all year long. There is really no change in our approach in that regard," said Whittingham.
After last season's win over no. 5 Stanford at home, Utah lost five games in a row. The downturn occurred for multiple reasons, a big one being an injury to Wilson. Utah is looking to avoid that letdown following the win on the road at no. 8 UCLA.
"We came off a big win against Stanford and didn't really get much going after that. That was disappointing, to not capitalize on a victory like that and get some momentum. We did have Travis [Wilson] hurt his hand the next week against Arizona, and was hurt on and off the rest of the season until the concussion a few weeks later. We want to obviously play much better in the second half of the season this year than we did last year. We're healthy right now for the most part. We've had some guys we have missed here and there, so we haven't been completely healthy, but certainly in much better health, particularly at the quarterback position, than we were last year. That was probably the number one issue, as far as personnel. We didn't get any turnovers, we didn't create takeaways like we are this year. We've had a pretty good run of interceptions and taking the ball away. Special teams - last year, although it wasn't bad, it wasn't having the impact that it has so far this season. Probably those two or three things combined.
We have had that conversation, how we didn't capitalize on a big win last year vs. Stanford. The timing of the game is almost identical - I think Stanford was in week six last year, rather than week five, which the UCLA game was. It's a one game at a time mentality but we hope to have a better result throughout the second half of the season than we did last year," said Whittingham.
Utah currently has the best special teams in the nation, due in large part to having a lot of talented specialists.
"That's certainly the biggest factor, is the talent level. We've got an excellent kicker in Andy Phillips. Tom Hackett is one of the nation's best punters and Kaelin Clay is one of the nation's best return men. Outside of that we have all the guys who are the supporting cast, buying into what we are doing on special teams. Clay has returned four kicks for touchdowns, but it's not all Kaelin Clay, it's a bunch of guys working their tails off to block for him and get him space so he can make that happen. Andy and Tom are just very talented at what they do, and that has all added up to some pretty good special teams play so far," said Whittingham.
Part of the credit for the excellent special teams play should go to Whittingham, who took over special teams this season. Whittingham has gotten the supporting players to execute his system effectively, which allows the stars like Clay, Hackett, and Phillips to shine. Other coaches are involved as well.
"I'm the point person, but we do have lead coaches for the other phases. I handle the punt team, Morgan Scalley handles the kickoff team, Sharrieff Shah handles punt return and Taylor Stubblefield handles kickoff return. It's a collaborative effort with PAT/field goal and Jim Harding handles the protection. We have different responsibilities within that. For me it's a matter of keeping it organized, making sure throughout the work week that we have the right amount of time devoted to each phase, meeting time and on the field, making sure that the content of the scout reporting and all the details that go into preparing for a game special teams-wise is in order. I'm not going to say that I'm doing everything, because I'm not, but I'm the guy who is responsible to get it structured," said Whittingham.
Luckily, Utah does not have to face Brandin Cooks again this season, who torched the secondary to the tune of nine receptions for 210 yards and three touchdowns. Oregon State however still has quarterback Sean Mannion. They also are more effective running the football this season compared to last season.
"I thought Brandin Cooks was the best receiver in the Pac-12 last year," said Whittingham. "The guy was a phenomenal talent. As far as this year as opposed to last year, they are running the football better this year than they were last year. As a team they have two backs that are a 1-2 punch. They both, ironically enough, have the exact amount of carries and are within a yard or two of each other as far as net yards. They are getting good production there. Sean Mannion's numbers are a little bit off this year as opposed to last year. He had that monster game against us last year, and several others. There were several weeks last year where he put up big-time numbers, and hasn't had quite that statistical impact this year, but he's still a great leader for them and doing things they need to have him do to win games, which they've done.
We expect a balanced attack, which they have been so far this season, getting about 130-40 rushing the football and another 250 throwing, which in this day and age is pretty balanced."
The key to stopping Mannion is to get pressure on him. He moves well in the pocket and has great size, but he is not much of a threat to run the football. If he has time, he will pick apart a secondary, as he did last season. Oregon State counters pressure with a lot of max protect plays, so it will be up to Utah to make plays against extra blockers and cover the fewer receivers effectively.
"Sean [Mannion] does a nice job getting the ball out of his hands quick and making quick decisions, and hasn't been sacked excessively this year, but you do approach it differently when you have a guy who is not a true dual threat. The running element is not as prevalent with Mannion as it is with Hundley and some of the other guys. You do approach that a little bit differently," said Whitingham,
The last undefeated team fell with Arizona falling to USC on Saturday. Every team in the Pac-12 now has a loss, which means almost every team is in contention to win their division.
"You wouldn't have thought through several weeks of conference play to have everyone have a loss this early, is unusual but not unexpected. I could see from my own vantage point and opinion going in, that it's a very balanced league and there is a lot of balance in the league. If you're not ready to play every week, you're going to get beat. That's what's happened so far. We may even see a two-loss team win the north or the south. We'll have to see how things shake out, but it wouldn't surprise me," said Whittingham.
Also be sure to listen below to the interview with cornerback Eric Rowe.