Another week, another close road win. After a 29-23 double overtime victory over Oregon State, Utah now sits at 5-1, ranked No. 19 in the AP and Coaches Polls. This marks their best start and highest ranking since going 8-0 to start the 2010 season, ranking as high as no. 6. Utah has a huge test at home this week with No. 20 USC coming to town on Saturday. Head coach Kyle Whittingham touched on these topics and others in his weekly press conference.
"Another nice road win for our team," said Whittingham. "Tough, hard-fought win in double overtime. Obviously it went right down to the wire. Proud of our guys and the way they hung in there and played the full game and found a way to win at the end, which is all that matters. Nothing else matters in comparison to that. Big challenge this week, USC coming to our place. They are playing well. Really dismantled Colorado in their game on Saturday. They have already played five conference games - they are 4-1 in league play, and doing a nice job. Maybe the most talented team in the conference, man-for-man. Just what you would expect out of an SC team year in and year out with the talent level. We have to be at our best this weekend, and we hope to do that."
Utah is off to their best start since joining the Pac-12, with a 5-1 record overall, 2-1 in Pac-12 play, their first winning record in conference play. Whittingham is impressed with how the team has played thus far this season but acknowledges there is still work to be done to improve.
"We're 5-1, and you are who and what your record says you are," Whittingham said. "so I think we're doing a pretty good job. Certainly got things to work on, that's obvious. We're playing well in a lot of areas. We have some deficiencies that we're trying to address. I don't think there is any team in the country that can say 'we're playing well in every single facet of the game.' I'd say being 5-1 through the first half of the year, we think we've positioned ourselves pretty good for the second half of the season. We just have to take it one game at a time and try to go 1-0 every week. That's been our mentality so far this year, and that's got to continue."
The biggest news this week was the announcement that quarterback Travis Wilson will start against USC over Kendal Thompson, who started against Oregon State last week. Utah has bounced between Wilson and Thompson to try to spark the struggling passing game.
"We think Travis' performance is a little bit better so far this season than Kendal overall," said Whittingham. "When you look at the numbers, it's very close. It's no different than when we came out of fall camp, with it being a tight race. Kendal has run the ball a little bit better than Travis has so far this season, Travis has thrown the ball a little bit better than Kendal. It's very tight. There is a very strong possibility that you'll see Kendal in the game this week as well. It's still not what I term a two-quarterback system. People say 'you're playing two quarterbacks so it's a two quarterback system' - no it's not, as far as my definition where both guys know they are going to play X amount of time or X amount of plays, whatever the case may be. We're waiting for some separation to occur. Ideally we'd like some separation to occur, and one guy to take charge and settle in and be the guy, but that hasn't happened yet, so they're both going to get opportunities until that does happen."
"We go by how we're functioning offensively, how efficient we're being, how we're moving the chains, are we protecting the football or are we turning it over - that was a big reason why we made the change at halftime in the last game, was we had a couple of turnovers and I think 80 yards of offense and just a couple of field goals to show for our efforts. Anytime we think that making a change is going to give us a spark, then that's when we'll do it. When we need a spark and we're looking for a spark and we're not getting the production we need, then we look at making a change."
The rushing attack, led by running back Devontae Booker is not an area that needs improvement this season. The passing game however has struggled and is the main area that needs work for Utah to improve.
"The rushing attack has been the difference offensively in the ability to win games," Whittingham said. "We're winning with a strong defense, a sound kicking game, and a strong running game. That's what we're winning with right now. Got to throw the ball better. We know that. And we've got to catch the ball better. We've got to protect better. There are a lot of things that go into that."
Drops have been a big problem for the receivers this season. Stats on drops are not kept by the NCAA, so there is no official total, but Utah receivers have dropped at least 15 passes in the last three games. Fixing this issue is the key to getting the passing game working well this season. Whittingham does not know why the receivers are having such an issue with dropped passes.
"No reason that we can put our finger on," Whittingham said. "That's been frustrating for us. You look at every game, anybody playing every week, there's going to be a few drops, we've just had a few too many. It's not like you're going to go through games with zero drops. That happens very seldom. But we certainly have had more than our share. But again, it's not just that. We have to put the ball in better spots sometimes. We have to pass protect better sometimes. We have to call better plays sometimes. So it's a combination of things. We're not pointing the finger at any one guy or any one group. If anything, we're pointing the finger at me. I'm the guy who has to try to get it solved."
Wide receiver Kenneth Scott was named the starter this week at the Z receiver after being co-starter with Tim Patrick last week, and a big reason for that was his blocking in the running game.
"[Scott] blocked exceptionally well [against Oregon State] and blocking is a big part of being a complete receiver," said Whittingham. "Really, all three will play between Dres Anderson, Tim Patrick, and Kenneth Scott. They are all going to play. Naming Kenneth the starter this week is probably a product of the blocking situation. Tim was not disappointing, it was just that Kenneth had a pretty good game in that regard. They're all three going to play. We could have listed either guy as the starter."
Utah has the best special teams in the nation. A big part of that is punter Tom Hackett. He leads the nation in net punting (44.27 yards) and is third in the nation, first in the Pac-12, in punting average (47.1 yards per punt). His ability to flip the field has been critical in helping Utah to win close games.
"[Hackett is a] huge weapon," Utah's head coach said. "We are leading the nation in net punting right now and that is a big factor in field position, flipping the field with your punt team. It's been a big plus for our team, and special teams all the way around. Tommy's doing a great job, but the coverage people around him are doing a great job - the snappers, the placekickers, the returners - so it's a matter of everyone buying into what we are doing and surrounding our exceptional skill people on the special teams with guys who are giving great effort. It can't be overstated how valuable he's been to our team."
Free safety Tevin Carter missed his second game this season against Oregon State. His status is unknown for the USC game. Carter's athleticism and playmaking ability was sorely missed against the Beavers last week. Having him will be key in the game against USC. Senior linebacker Jacoby Hale appeared in his first game this season after suffering an ACL tear in spring camp. Whittingham is hoping to gradually increase his reps as he continues to recover.
"We hope Tevin Carter plays," Whittingham said. "It's unknown. It's a week-to-week thing. We sure missed him last week. You're always going to miss a good football player. That's just how the game goes. There are no excuses, there's nothing you can do about it, so we just move on. Hopefully he'll play, but I can't tell you for certain one way or another. We hope Jacoby Hale gets more reps than he did last week. He just got a handful of reps last week, and it was his first live action since spring ball, since he had the injury. He's a talented player, and we hope to integrate him more each week as the season goes on, and hopefully he'll play maybe 1/4 or 1/3 of the game this week. We want to increase his reps in practice as well. We're going to start adding to that as he feels good."
Utah's next opponent, USC, is loaded with talent, which is what one would expect from a typical USC team. Whittingham noted the play of quarterback Cody Kessler and defensive lineman Leonard Williams.
"Cody Kessler is playing very well. Coming off a great performance against Colorado. We've got our work cut out for us. He's a lot like Connor Halliday that he's a pocket passer, and Sean Mannion, who we just faced. Not real eager to run the ball - not to say that he's not a good athlete, because he is, but he makes his living in the pocket. He's done a nice job of that this year."
"From the tape I've seen," Whittingham continued, "Leonard Williams is a disruptor. He's a guy who demands double teams. He's a very talented football player, and maybe the best defensive lineman in the country. We'll definitely have our hands full with him, and it will be a challenge to make sure we try to somehow get him slowed down a little bit."
The matchup this weekend will pit the Pac-12's top two running backs against each other, with leading rusher Buck Allen (129.9 yards per game) from USC taking on Booker (123.7 yards per game) from Utah. This will be a key match up in the game according to Whittingham.
"It will be very pivotal. Just about every week, most weeks, football comes down to stopping the run and being able to run. We've got two teams doing a nice job. I think we're rushing for a few more yards per week than they are. Two strong running teams. They are very balanced on offense. They're doing a great job throwing the football with Kessler, and Allen is a terrific back. We've got our own back that we're very high on [Devontae Booker], so that will be an intriguing matchup. That will be a big determiner in the game, is how those guys fare vs. their respective defenses."