Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham addressed the media this week for his weekly press conference. He touched on the loss to Arizona, the upcoming game against UCLA, the health of the team, among other topics.
"Unfortunately, we came up short Saturday night. It was a great football game, double overtime. [There was] a lot of excitement. For us, it really came down to not having an answer for [Arizona] quarterback [Anu Solomon]. He had an exceptional game. He threw the ball well, escaped the pocket numerous times and extended the play. We just didn't respond very well to the throwing game. We did play the running game pretty tough, which had been our problem against those guys the last several years, but Saturday night it was the passing game that did us in. We committed far too many penalties. We hadn't done that all year long and that gave [Arizona] a lot of momentum early in the game and kept drives alive and gave them field position. That was disappointing. Offensively, we didn't put up bad numbers. It was pretty much balanced. About 220 [yards] running and 220 [yards] throwing. We had a couple of turnovers and were only able to generate two takeaways by our defense so we broke even in the turnover margin. The bottom line is that they made a couple more plays at the end than we did. Arizona was just able to make a play or two more. I really thought we were going to win the game when it was tied up and we had the ball at the end and driving. One time we ended up fumbling the ball at midfield and we weren't able to catch a slant route, which would have given us a first down and extended that drive. We had our chances. We have no one to blame but ourselves, but Arizona played well. I'm not trying to discredit what they did, because they played a very good football game. That was that so now we find ourselves sitting in first place tied with USC in the division. However, we know in the event of a tie, it would go to them based on head-to-head so these next two weeks will be very interesting. We have no margin for error, obviously. Our backs are to the wall and we have to figure out a way to beat UCLA this weekend. USC has two tough games at Oregon and UCLA the next week so anything can happen. We're by no means out of it, but we're certainly nowhere near in as good of a position as we were last week, but that's the Pac-12. Stanford got beat. Everyone takes turns beating everyone up. That's the nature of the conference."
Utah has two games left, and they will need to bounce back from the loss to Arizona, as they still have a shot to win the Pac-12 South.
"Everyone feels down [right now] because you want to win every game, but we're 8-2 right now and if you would have told me months ago that we'd be sitting tied for first going into week 12 for the season, that's a pretty good situation. I'm still disappointed that we're not 9-1 because we had a chance."
THe Pac-12 is a tough, physical conference, so injuries build up over the course of a season so having adequate depth is necessary.
"You have to have depth because it is a grinding schedule and you play very physical teams. That's what we've been working on for five years now, to build our depth and get our roster upgraded in all areas: speed, athleticism and depth. We've made progress, but there are still a few positions where we're not really where we want to be. Relative to where we were five years ago, it's a big difference."
Arizona's offensive game plan focused more on throwing than running than in years past.
"They were throwing the ball more. There was more throwing than what we anticipated. A lot of runs that show up in the statistics as runs weren't runs. They were QB scrambles off of the throw game. That was the biggest reason [Jared Norris and Gionni Paul didn't put up their usual statistics]. They changed their M.O. and decided that the running game was not going to be featured and it was going to feature the passing game. Credit their receivers as well. It wasn't just the quarterback. Their receivers played outstanding and made some great catches, particularly the game winner [by Nate Phillips]. That was a heck of a catch that the kid made. Boobie Hobbs had great position on the route, turned to find the ball just like he's supposed to, the quarterback put the ball in a great place and the receiver made a great catch."
Running back Joe Williams was utilized more against Arizona than in any previous game due to running back Devontae Booker being banged up.
"That's a possibility. We should have utilized him more in the last game as things turned out. Devontae [Booker] thought he was going to be able to return at full strength, but it was very obvious that he wasn't. We probably should have put Joe back in again and given him a few more touches, but what was encouraging was that while he was in there he provided a spark for us and looked really good. Right now, he's the heir apparent to Devontae so that bodes well for next year. Although it was only seven carries he had, he did a good job with it."
Utah's wide receivers struggled with drops in the gam at Arizona.
"We haven't had many of those all year long, where it was a big problem last year and even the year before. This year, we have done a much better job catching the football and it just came at a very inopportune time. It was the one time in the game that we couldn't afford it, but it happened. Our receivers, for the most part, have done a nice job catching the football for the entire year."
With UCLA losing and USC winning, Utah can still win the Pac-12 South if they win out and USC losing one of their final two games.
"We will discuss it at the team meeting today. We had a brief discussion about it after the game. Obviously, we didn't know at that point that UCLA had lost. They hadn't lost yet, that game was still in progress, but we very briefly talked about the big picture and where we were and how we're still in it. We'll have more discussion about that in the team meeting."
Overall, Whittingham was not displeased with the defensive backfield's performance at Arizona.
"There were not a lot of mistakes and coverage busts. [Arizona] was just doing a good job of making plays. It wasn't like there were blown coverages or we had bad technique or any of that stuff. They just beat us. Their receivers did a better job than our secondary on Saturday night. They just made plays when they were there to be made. Their quarterback put the ball right on the money most of the time. He wasn't perfect, but he did a really nice job. Really, that's what it boiled down to, good execution by them in the throw game."
It appears that the return of defense end Hunter Dimick and cornerback Reginald Porter to the defense is a possibility this week.
"We hope they're ready. There are no guarantees, but we understand that they're going to be able to get some limited reps this week. Obviously, we miss them. Hunter is one of the best defensive ends in the conference. Reginald has been very steady and consistent all year long for us. If in fact we're able to get those guys back, it would be a plus for us."
Whittingham was complementary about UCLA, especially their offense.
"[Their biggest strength is] their offense. They have probably the most athletic offensive line we've faced all year. They have two tackles [Conor McDermott and Kolton Miller] who are 6'9" athletic kids. The quarterback [Josh Rosen] is really good for a true freshman. He's third in the league in throwing right now. The running back [Paul] Perkins is terrific and the receiving corps is really good with [Jordan] Payton and [Thomas] Duarte. They have weapons all over the place. The biggest challenge is trying to figure out a way to slow down their offense. They really have no weakness. Across the board, they're very talented."
Utah's pass rush failed to produce a sack against Arizona.
"There maybe was a problem with lane integrity, getting out of our lanes a little bit as we rush the passer, which has provided some creases and escape hatches for the quarterback. I thought our pressure was pretty good. We just didn't finish. We got to them. We flushed them [out of the pocket], but we can't let him escape. That's what we did. We didn't do a very good job of keeping him in the cage when we rushed the passer. [Solomon] is a nifty guy. He's not an easy guy to do that to. He's a guy who is very elusive."
Despite fumbling at midfield in the fourth quarter against Arizona, the coaching staff continued to use Booker for the rest of the game.
"He's been very good all year [at securing the ball]. I think that was only his second lost fumble all year. I was talking to [Assistant Head Coach] Dennis [Erickson] on the phones and asked him what he thought. He felt that Devontae was going to be fine. We were debating whether to go with Devontae or Joe on the next series, not just because of the fumble, but because he wasn't himself. He usually runs with a lot of violence and tenacity. You could tell he had lost that edge a little bit. That was the debate and the bottom line was that we decided to go with Devontae."
There is a lot of pride and leadership on the defense that will need to step up the final two games of the season.
"We have a lot of guys on this defense who are prideful. They take a lot of pride in what they're doing. It starts with Gionni Paul and Jared Norris. They'll get themselves reeled back in as much as anyone else. We as coaches will obviously have a part in that, but our leadership on this team has been fantastic all year long and our defense has played solid all year long. We're among the league leaders in just about every category so we expect that they'll rebound and come back and play well this weekend."
Booker's health is a bit of a question mark heading into the UCLA game.
"[Booker's health is] a question mark right now. We'll know a lot more after today. There are more evaluations that have to take place."
Whittingham was asked on his thoughts about the Pac-12's nine-game conference schedule negatively impacting College Football Playoff status of the conference's top teams.
"That has been a topic of conversation ever since we went to a nine-game conference schedule. I'm not necessarily in favor of going to an eight-game conference schedule, but all five power conferences playing the same amount. That is more important than whether there are eight or nine. As long as they all play the same amount. That's the biggest issue."