Utah wrapped up the 2014 football season last Saturday with a dominant performance, beating Colorado State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas bowl 45-10. It concluded the best season the Utes have experienced to date in the Pac-12 and gave the Utes a foundation to build on moving forward into next year. Let’s take a minute to reflect on the year that was and examine how this year’s team measured up to expectations.
Coming into the season, expectations for this year’s team seems to hover around the team finishing 6-6 and barely qualifying for a bowl game. The expectation was 7-5 for the optimistic crowd, 5-7 for the more pessimistic sect. The Utes had their rough patches during the season, specifically blowing a 21-point lead at home to bottom dwelling Washington State, and, of course, the late November senior day smackdown from Arizona. Of the Utes nine wins this year, seven were by a touchdown or less. The overall record improved by four games from a season ago, but if a few last-minute plays had gone the other way, our perspective on this season could be totally different. Overall though, the defense played stellar for most of the season, and the offense did just enough to win games. I don’t know anyone who had expectations of a nine-win season with victories over USC, UCLA, and Stanford going into the season. In that regard, the Utes surpassed expectations greatly.
The offense acted like Jekyll and Hyde this season. The offense put up good numbers, averaging 31.3 points per game. Devontae Booker ran for 1,512 yards, eight shy of breaking the all time single season record held by John White IV. Travis Wilson even ended up with decent stats, completing 60% of his passes for 2,170 yards and 18 touchdowns (with only 5 interceptions). However the numbers can be a bit misleading.
The offense was explosive against lower tier competition. The Utes averaged 46.5 points per game in out-of-conference games, including the Las Vegas Bowl. Those games were against an FCS school, two Mountain West teams, and a Michigan team that got it's coach fired. In Pac-12 play, the Utes averaged only 24.5 points per game, nearly half of its non-conference production. In the out-of-conference games Travis Wilson looked like a star. Against Pac-12 competition Wilson looked like a deer in headlights. There is no doubt Booker was the lynchpin for this offense, and without him, the Utes likely don't go bowling this year. Overall, it was a mixed bag for the offense, with plenty of room to improve.
The 2014 defense continued Utah's tradition of stout defensive line play, so much so, that national media began referring to Salt Lake City as #SackLakeCity. The moniker was well deserved, as the Utes led the nation in sacks as a team, ending the year with 55 total sacks. Nate Orchard was a beast at defensive end, recording 18.5 sacks of his own and 21 tackles for a loss. Brian Blechen returned as the enforcer at strong safety and had a solid senior year, and Utah fans got to watch newcomer Gionni Paul live up to the hype he brought with him from Miami, before the injury bug struck again late in the season.
The defense gave up 24.9 points per game to finish fifth in the PAC-12 in scoring defense and was responsible for keeping the team in a lot of games that could easily have been blowouts. Games against Oregon State, Arizona State, and Stanford stand out as exceptional performances by the defense. Say what you want about the offense, but Utah looks like they have arrived in the Pac-12 on defensive side of the ball.
The special teams were... special. It was definitely, top to bottom, the best unit on the 2014 Utah team. Led by Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett and kicker Andy Phillips, the special teams was the difference between winning and losing in more than a few games this season. Hackett's 3,736 total punt yards led the nation this year, and his 46.7 yards per punt average was good for first in the Pac-12. His ability to drop kicks inside the 10-yard line was game changing for the Utes, and he gave the special teams a swagger not often found on special teams. Phillips was "automatic" for the most part, connecting on 23 of 28 field goals this season and 44 of 45 extra point attempts. Kaelin Clay electrified with his kick returns, scoring four touchdowns on special teams, returning one kickoff return and three punt returns for touchdowns.
The 2015 season will bring an opportunity for Utah to build upon the success they enjoyed this season.The Utes will lose some difference makers such as Orchard, Blechen, and Rowe on defense, as well as Dres Andersen, Clay, and probably Booker on offense. The team returns plenty of talent however, as a strong linebacker corps will return healthy and fully intact, and the Utes bring back all the quarterbacks from this season (though coach Wittingham has hinted to expect some attrition). This will be Utah's fifth Pac-12 recruiting class, and the overall talent and depth continues to improve. Certain players will need to step into leadership roles, and the team will need to form new chemistry with players leaving and new players joining. However, from a talent standpoint, next year's team should be fine, and the expectation should be to continue to take steps forward in the Pac-12 South.
An area that is of major concern heading into next season is the recent defections of defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki to Oregon State, and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen to Texas A&M. Sitake held huge sway with Polynesian players and was a big pull for the University of Utah with those recruits. It's easy to see current and future recruits choosing to follow him to Oregon State. Wittingham knows defense, and I don't expect defensive scheme or fundamentals to drop off as long as Wittingham is with the program. That being said, I believe Sitake is a great coach, and his recruiting will be especially missed.
On the offensive side of the ball, many are happy Dave Christensen is leaving for possibly greener pastures. Indeed, this is an opportunity for Wittingham to bring in a dynamic play caller, yet this will be Utah's eighth different offensive coordinator in eight years. I believe a large part of the inconsistent offensive play and lack of quarterback development is due to the revolving door at the offensive coordinator position. For this Utah team to jump into the conference elite, Wittingham will need to find a quality offensive coach that will stick around for a few years. More than any other change Utah is facing this offseason, the hiring of a new offensive coordinator is most critical to this team's 2015 success. The schedule will be tough again next season, and for continued success, the offense must improve. How (and who) Wittingham hires for the two new coordinators will determine this team's 2015 success.