Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham touched on the overtime loss to Arizona State in his weekly press conference. He answered questions about injuries, the passing game, and Oregon.
"Tough, hard-fought, close game, just like we've been in for several weeks now," Whittingham said. "Physical. Unfortunately we came out on the short end of this one. Our guys battled all the way to the end. It was really a defensive game again. Each offense only found the end zone one time. Not a lot of scoring in that respect. A bunch of field goals, but like I said, we played hard and came up one play short. They made one more play than we did at the end. That was the difference in the game. Unfortunate, but that's the way it goes"
"We've got to come back and get ready for Oregon. Great football team. Ranked No. 5 in the country. Very much deserving of that ranking. They might be even better than that. A very balanced team, running the ball, throwing the ball. Led by an exceptional quarterback. They have a lot going for them right now, so we have a tough challenge ahead. We have them at home, which helps our cause, and our guys are looking forward to the opportunity."
The schedule does not get any easier with Oregon (8-1, 5-1 in conference) visiting this Saturday. The Ducks are the highest ranked team in the Pac-12 and just came off a dominant 45-16 win against Stanford. Oregon is led by Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Marcus Mariota. Oregon's lone loss was against Arizona, but the Ducks were suffering from injuries at offensive tackle. Offensive tackle Jake Fisher is back, and Oregon is playing much better as a result.
"Oregon had both offensive tackles out during the Arizona game," Whittingham said. "They were playing a true freshman and a walk-on who hadn't played much. That really helps your cause when something like that happens. I don't know if Arizona had the blueprint [to defeating Oregon], but they certainly got after them, particularly on the perimeter in that game. The best way to defend Oregon's offense is to keep it on the sideline as much as you can. In order to do that, you have to move the chains with the offense and take care of the football and be productive. That is without a doubt the best way to try to defend them."
"[Marcus Mariota] is throwing the ball exceptionally well. In addition, he's lightning quick as a runner. He's a guy who can pull it down and rip off 60 yards without blinking an eye. You've got to be able to defend it all. That's the thing about a dual threat quarterback that truly is a dual threat. He may be the best in the conference overall, and we have our work cut out for us. The defense has a big order. You have to keep him in the pocket and your lane distribution and pass rush has to be really good so you don't give him any escape routes out of the pocket. You also have to play good in the secondary because he's an accurate thrower. He presents as big a problem as you can have from a defensive standpoint, a quarterback who can do both really well. You can't load up for one or the other."
Utah's secondary was missing two key players: Eric Rowe and Tevin Carter. Whittingham touched on the status of each of these players moving forward.
"We feel good about having Eric Rowe back this week. Tevin Carter is getting to the point where it's two steps forward and three steps back at times. There is a possibility that if Tevin is not ready this week, we've been told a medical hardship is in his favor and looks good if we go that direction. If it's to the point where he can't play this week, which right now it's unknown, with only three games in the regular season left after that, we may very well say ok, let's look toward next year and get him an extra year. That's a situation we are talking about and thinking about right now. If he's not ready to play, the decision makes itself. If he is ready to play than we have a decision to make on where to go," said Whittingham.
The head coach talked about the replacement for Carter, true freshman Marcus Williams, who has played significantly against Washington State, USC, and Arizona State.
"Marcus Williams was a bright spot [against ASU]," he said. "If you compare his play in that game with the game against Washington State, it's night and day. He's really come a long way since then. For a true freshman put into that situation, I thought he handled it exceptionally well. That was something I should have mentioned earlier. That was a big positive for us to have him step up and play well in that game. He made very few mistakes and made a bunch of tackles."
The passing offense has struggled this year for Utah. Quarterback Travis Wilson only threw for 57 yards against Arizona State. In wins against UCLA and Oregon State, Wilson and Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson combined for 100 and 63 yards total passing in those games.
"We'd like to throw the ball a lot better than we have been," said Whittingham. "And when I say that, not literally the quarterback throwing the ball but more production in the throwing game. If you had to determine one thing that's really held us back this year, it's the lack of production throwing the football. That's been an ongoing problem, and we've got to get that solved. The quarterback position is a competition this week - it's opened back up. We'll have them compete in practice this week and see what transpires and go with the guy that we feel is going to give us the best chance to win."
Whittingham does acknowledge that some of the struggle was due to the ASU defense.
"Give Arizona State a bunch of credit," Whittingham said. "They had a nice scheme, they gave us a heavy dose of pressure and we didn't really have a good answer for it. We have to be better. We have to be more equipped to deal with pressure than we were Saturday night. If you can't throw the football, they're going to load up the box, just like ASU did. They had 10 men within 7-8 yards of scrimmage almost every snap. We've got to have a way, as an offense, to loosen up the defense, and the only way to do that is get the ball up the field throwing it, and we haven't been able to do that the last several weeks."
Utah did not throw the ball down the field much against ASU. It was offensive coordinator Dave Christensen's call to not throw it deep.
"Dave [Christensen] maybe didn't feel comfortable that we were getting the separation that we could get over the top on them. When you crease them on a run, when they are bringing all that pressure, it's out of the gate. There is more than one way to beat a blitz, but based on our strengths and what we are doing well, I think that Dave felt that the best way to try to take advantage of that is to get [Devontae] Booker a crease up the middle. But at some point we have to throw the ball over the top," said Whittingham.
The lack of turnovers on offense has helped mitigated the poor passing production, as well as a strong rushing attack and a defense that has forced turnovers.
"The reason we've been successful - we're 6-2, which is not bad - is because of the ability to take care of the ball on offense and get the ball turned over on defense to our offense. If you had to say what was the one biggest key to the season thus far, one statistic, it would be the turnover differential. That's of great importance. It boils down to not being able to throw the ball well enough and get production there. We're running the ball effectively, we're taking care of the football, so we're doing some good things, but you have to be able to be balanced and right now we're not very balanced offensively. We were [more balanced] earlier in the year. We were throwing the ball pretty good. We have just kind of gone into a funk in the throw game. For whatever reason, it's not where it needs to be, for a lot of reasons, but we have to get back to trying to figure it out," said Whittingham.