In the press conference following Utah's 26-10 win on the road at Michigan, head coach Kyle Whittingham touched on many topics, including Michigan, Pac-12 competition, linebacker Gionni Paul, and many other topics.
"It was good to get the win on the road at Michigan," said Whittingham. "Very proud of our guys, players and coaches. Defense played exceptionally well. Special teams were very good. Offensively, we weren't as productive as we'd like to be, but we took care of the football. We just turned it over the one time. That was probably the biggest stat of the game, the turnover margin - 4-1, +3 for us. Historically, our chances are very good anytime we're on the plus side of the turnover margin. Proved to be the case again. We start Pac-12 play this week. Washington State this week, coming to our place, homecoming game. Open up for the first of nine-straight Pac-12 games with a bye mixed in there at some point. It's conference play from here on out. We came out of the game in pretty good shape as far as bumps and bruises. We'll get back on the field tomorrow, we'll just lift today, and we'll get going for Washington State."
It has not gone unnoticed that Utah has struggled so far in the Pac-12 with an overall record of 9-18 in three years. Many issues have contributed to the poor record, which has declined from 4-5 in 2011 to 3-6 in 2012 to 2-7 in 2013. Whittingham sees a lot of improvement in the team this season but also in other teams in the conference as well. The Utes are trying to hit a proverbial moving target. Adding more speed is a key for Utah to be more competitive in the Pac-12.
"I think we're faster. I think we're better on the perimeters with the wide receivers, the secondary. We're getting good quarterback play right now. That's got to continue. Keep Travis healthy. I think we're improved across the board, but probably everyone else in the conference is as well. I've said that many times. I think that we have some things going for us right now, but it's a tough conference. Every week will be a challenge," said Whittingham.
Whittingham was not happy with quarterback Travis Wilson's decision to go airborne on a third and long in the second quarter but liked his play otherwise.
"He'll be playing this week. He's a tough kid. He'll be the first to tell you that he needs to use better judgment in some cases. He's a tremendous competitor and exceptionally tough and very smart, he just didn't use the best judgment on that one isolated play," said Whittingham.
On getting Wilson back to start the second half after the injury, Whittingham said, "It gave us a big spark. That's what you want to do. Coming out of halftime, if you've got the ball you want to score, and if you're on defense you want to get a stop, and that sets the tone for the half. We marched right down - that was our best drive of the game by far, the opening drive of the second half. Very efficient, very productive. It was great to have Travis engineering that drive."
Whittingham also touched on Utah's other quarterback, Kendal Thompson and the plan for him moving forward.
"We thought we were going to get him in the game on Saturday. It just so happened it was because Travis went down, but he's played very well and contributed. That will be the plan the rest of the way. There is never going to be a point where we say 'at the start of the second quarter you're in.' That's not how we operate. He brings enough to the table that when Dave [Christensen] and I feel the time is right, he can take some reps and help the team. That's not to take anything away from Travis, because Travis is playing exceptionally well. It's not a case of Travis not getting it done, it's trying to utilize all of our weapons," said Whittingham.
As I think most people were, Whittingham was a bit surprised and very impressed with the first game from Paul.
"I can't say we were expecting that kind of impact, but we know that he's a good player," said Whittingham. "We know he's a playmaker. We know he plays with a passion. But to be the Athlon Defensive Player of the Week, not only [the player of the week] in the Pac-12, but nationally, we are very fortunate to have him in the lineup, particularly with Jason [Whittingham] out. He's a great player, and he showed it on Saturday on a big stage."
Whittingham further praised the effort of the entire Utah defense overall against Michigan.
"Michigan did not get in the red zone the entire game. I think all three position groups are playing well - the secondary, the linebackers and the front. There is no real weakness right now. We're getting good pressure on the quarterback with mostly a four-man rush. We are mixing in some zone blitz, but maybe not as much as a dose as we have in years past. We're getting tackles for loss and sacks from the front. Tackles from the linebackers and good coverage in man situations in the zone drops, and then the secondary seems to be covering much better this year. Not that we had bad coverage last year, but we're making more plays back there. More pass breakups, and we had the three interceptions on Saturday that really helped our cause," said Whittingham.
On special teams, Whittingham said that the reason the special teams is so special is because of having very talented players that have bought into the system. I think having Whittingham coach special teams this year has also contributed as well.
"The guys are working extremely hard all week in practice," said Whittingham. "We have a punter and a kicker who have a ton of talent in Tom Hackett and Andy Phillips. Returner Kaelin Clay is a big-time returner. The starting point is always talent and players, and we have that. The guys have all bought in. The entire team understands the importance of special teams. Every guy on the team has bought into what we're doing in that regard. What you see is the finished product on Saturdays. We hope it continues. It's only three games in but so far we're off to a pretty good start."
Utah opens Pac-12 play on Saturday Sept. 27th at home against the Washington State Cougars, who nearly knocked off the Oregon Ducks at home on Saturday, ultimately falling short 38-31. The team was able to catch that game on the way home. Whittingham was left being very impressed with Washington State overall, both offense and defense.
"We did watch that game [against Oregon] on the way home. We had TV sets on the way home so the entire airplane was pretty much glued to that game. Very prolific on offense throwing the football. They are averaging nearly 500 yards passing, which is tremendous. I don't know what the NCAA record is, but if they are able to keep that pace they will probably have the record. Connor Halliday is an exceptional quarterback. He did some good things against us last year, and they took the Ducks right down to the wire. We know they are prolific on offense and this might be the best defense Coach Leach has had since he's been at Washington State. They are a very dangerous team. They are sitting at 1-3 but they are dangerous. They have weapons and they are a very good football team. They just haven't gotten off to a great start.
This is a big departure [from other offenses we face during the season.] Week in and week out, usually your starting point on defense is to stop the run, but with Washington State you don't do that. You still have to be aware of the run. They hurt us with a couple of runs last year as I recall, a couple runs that popped, but how they are going to beat you is throwing the football. You have to make sure you have all your bases covered with mixing up your coverages and getting pressure on the quarterback," said Whittingham.
On the always interesting Washington State head coach, Mike Leach, Whittingham could not recollect their first meeting but talked about the friendship they have and some coaching tips Leach gave the team.
"We did not know each other in college," said Whittingham. "I didn't know he was a fan of mine. I am trying to think of the first time we met. I can't recollect exactly when the first meeting was. We've been friends for a lot of years now. I have a lot of respect for him and everything he's done in his career. He's such a great guy to hang around with. He's intriguing, has a great sense of humor, he always has something very interesting to talk about. I really enjoy the time I'm able to spend with him. Our wives get along very well in addition. We didn't know each other back in the day when I was playing. I think I was graduated, but I think he started helping out in the office in spring football.
It was great [when he came in to address our guys during his time away from coaching.] We picked up some good stuff from him. It was during his time when he was away from the game for the one season. He came in and gave us some really good ideas and helped us out."
The improving Utah secondary will have their hands full stopping the Washington State Air Raid offense on Saturday.
"It's a tough matchup because they have so many different receivers. You can't just focus on one or two or even three. They have 4-5 guys who are very good and are producing for them. We've got to have more than just the two outside corners. Justin Thomas is playing very well at the nickel in addition. They really present matchup problems with their skill and their speed, and you have to adjust your personnel to equate your speed with theirs. That will be a challenge for us, to make sure we have enough skill on the field to match up with their skill," said Whittingham.
As Whittingham said, preparing for Washington State will be difficult because of how effectively they run their unconventional offense, which requires the team to instead of preparing to stop the run first but stop the pass first because they pass the ball early often.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham press conference 9/22/2014 (via KSL Sports)