Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham addressed the media for his weekly press conference. He touched on the win over Fresno State and the upcoming game against Oregon in Eugene, Ore. Utah finished the nonconference schedule 3-0 and are ranked No. 18 in the AP Poll and No. 17 in the Coaches Poll.
"It was great to close out the nonconference part of the schedule with another win. Ideally, when we come out of nonconference play, we want to be 3-0, which is where we're able to be. What we were able to accomplish in the Fresno [State] game, there were a lot of positives and a few negatives as always. It was give-and-take like most weeks. The big thing was that I thought our special teams came alive and really did some good things, although there were a few negatives on the special teams, it was by far mostly positive. The kickoff return by Cory Butler-Byrd, who was named Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week, so that's three weeks in a row we've had one of our players honored by the conference, which is great to see. Britain Covey's punt return, Tom Hackett did a nice job punting, although he only had to punt a couple times in that game. Andy Phillips was perfect on his PATs and field goals. The two negatives in the special teams obviously were the fumble on the opening kickoff and then allowing the onside kick to be recovered late in the game. Otherwise, finally we started to see some real signs of momentum-changing type plays in the special teams. Overall, the negative of the game was getting sloppy defensively in the fourth quarter. We gave up 21 fourth-quarter points, which is ridiculous. That was really the big negative as we had the game well in hand and then with about 10 or 12 minutes to go in the game, we decided to back off a little bit, which was disappointing to see. Otherwise, it's on to Oregon. It's a big challenge and big opportunity for our football team. It's a tough road trip. Autzen [Stadium] is always a tough place to play. Oregon is loaded with talent, just like they are every year. We need to be at our best this week to do well on that trip."Getting a better push in the running game has been a point of emphasis so far this season for Utah, and Whittingham feels the offensive line improved in that regard against Fresno State.
"Without a doubt [we've made progress]. We came away with 220 rushing yards on Saturday night, but it's still a work in progress. We definitely made strides throughout the first three weeks and as long as we continue on that upward trend, I think we'll be okay."
With starting quarterback Travis Wilson sidelined with a shoulder injury, senior quarterback Kendal Thompson got the start. Redshirt freshman Chase Hansen saw a few reps as well in special packages.
"Kendal [Thompson] did some good things and did some not so good things. He turned the ball over in the red zone, had a fumble, and really for the first time of the year, we lost the turnover battle (3-2). That was some of the downside, but he kept his poise and made good decisions for the most part. He didn't really get rattled. After the interception, he was able to bounce back and put it behind him. Going forward, we still don't know what the situation is going to be. We'll have to take a look at Travis [Wilson] in practice so we won't have a decision until Wednesday or Thursday as to the direction we go."
Utah has not gotten many ‘chunk' plays for the offense so far this season. There are multiple reasons for this.
"It's all of the above [quarterback play, receivers not getting open and play design to adjust to Fresno State's defense] for chunk yardage. It's tough to sustain nine, 10, 11 or 12-play drives consistently without getting some big yards in that drive, big chunks at a time. It's hard to go four yards, five yards, six yards, seven yards at a time. It's just hard to do. You need to be able to be explosive with your offense and be able to get those big gains. Typically they come in the throw game, not always. A running back is capable of ripping off a 30 or 40-yard run on occasion, but what needs to improve is getting big plays out of the wide receivers. It's a combination of everything mentioned, maybe dialing up a few more of those opportunities and making plays when those opportunities are dialed up. We need to go ahead and try to get those chunk yards, big plays down the field. Just because you have a deep ball called, doesn't mean that's how the play is going to end up if you go through your read progression and it's not there. Wide receivers getting open more often also plays into it, although Kenneth Scott has a knack of making plays, even when the opponent has him in coverage. Even when [Scott] is covered, you can throw it to him and good things will happen more so than not, you either draw a pass interference or come away with the football. We have to trust that he's going to make those plays and do a better job of giving him opportunities to make those plays."
As most Utah fans know, Utah changed defensive coordinators from Kalani Sitake (who left for the same job at Oregon State) to John Pease. With the changes in DC, there have been some changes in scheme.
"We haven't dialed up as much pressure this year as in year's past, percentage-wise. I think we've been more conservative. We've been leaning on the four-man rush a little bit more. We haven't had a consistent ability to get to the quarterback, although we've made some big plays when we get there, the strip sack by Pita [Taumoepenu] last week and [at Fresno State] we knocked the ball loose and scored. There has been some impact, but overall, we have probably backed off a little bit on the pressure. [Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Line Coach] John Pease is running the defense. I have my input, obviously, with an exact knowledge of what's going on. [Pease] calls the game and so far and it's been good. We have some areas of weakness, but other than third-down conversions, where we're not doing a good job of getting off the field, we're doing a nice job getting some takeaways and the run defense has been a positive. We're second in the league in run defense. The thing that has been different is pressure on the quarterback. We're not getting as much pressure with the four-man front and we're not dialing up as many blitzes. We need to take a look at that and see what direction we need to go."
Utah faces their first ranked opponent and first conference game on Saturday against Oregon.
"I think our team gained confidence last year, going 9-4 and winning some really big in-conference games. That gave our guys the mindset that if we play like we're capable of, we'll be in just about every football game that we play. I don't know last year gives us any momentum, but we just have the mindset that if we come out and play our best football then we're going to be right there."
Senior defensive tackle Viliseni Fauonuku has seen his role increase in the Utah defensive line rotation.
"It starts in practice. He does a great job in practice, doing things the right way, technique-wise and fundamentally. He makes very few mental mistakes. He's a senior now. He's been in our program for quite a few years and he's probably been our most consistent front guy through three games. When you play well, you earn more reps. That's just the way it works. And he's played well, not only in practice but in games. We're blessed with all of those defensive linemen. We have five of them who we really like. There's not much drop-off regardless of who's in there, but ‘Seni' has done a really nice job of locking in this year and playing his technique. That was probably the main thing that kept him off the field in years past, there was a tendency for freelancing at times and not doing things exactly how we wanted them done. That's not to say he was undisciplined, but he's really taken a big step forward this year doing things right all of the time."
If Whittingham could magically improve one thing for the team, he would pick:
"That would probably be putting consistent pressure on the quarterback, which we haven't done. Like I said, we've come away with very few sacks, although there have been some giant, momentum-changing type plays by the guys up front as I mentioned. We just haven't been consistent."
The scheme has not changed much for the Oregon offense, but they did lose a great player in Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota.
"It hasn't changed a whole lot. [Newcomer quarterback Vernon Adams] fits very well into what they do. There's only one Marcus Mariota so those are very big shoes to fill. Of course, [Adams] didn't play last week, but we expect him to play this week. He seems to be a guy who understands exactly what they want to do and he has the skill set to do it, although he's not to Mariota's level yet, but who is? [Adams] is a very good athlete and a tough kid."
Utah scored one defensive and two special teams touchdowns at Fresno State.
"That's team football, the more ways we can find to score, the better. We did that last year. We had a lot of non-offensive touchdowns last year and we were up 38-10 [after Britain Covey's 77-yard punt return] before the wheels came off defensively. The more ways we can put points up, the better. We've been blessed with dynamic returners for a lot of years in a row now and it appears as though we have those guys this year again. The defense scored its second touchdown of the season so that's good as well. Any time you can manufacture points other than offense, it just helps your cause that much more."
Junior cornerback Cory Butler-Byrd may see some playing time on offense to take advantage of his speed and skill.
"We're looking at all possibilities. You may see that at some point this season. In fact, I can say that you will see that at some point this season. It's just a matter of Cory settling into that defensive role first. This is his first time in the program, he missed spring ball, so we want to be sure we don't put too much on his plate initially and let him grow into things. He's playing good defense for us right now. Obviously, he's a weapon in the return game and so the next step in that progression is to see if he can help us on offense and that will happen at some point this season."
Utah will see a very similar defense from Oregon as they did last season.
"It hasn't changed a whole lot. They did lose a very good defensive lineman [Arik Armstead] to the NFL Draft last year, but they're playing base defense with essentially the same schemes, same coverage structure and same front. They base out of an odd front so they haven't changed much schematically."
There appears to be much more balance from top to bottom in the Pac-12 than people may have thought in the preseason.
"It appears to be more balanced early on. As the season, particularly the Pac-12 season, starts to get underway with conference matchups across the board every week, I think we'll be able to make a better determination. There may very well be more balance this year. That's hard to say because there was pretty good balance in the Pac-12 South last year for the most part. It's tough to get perspective, at least for me, at least until about five or six weeks into the season."
Utah's offensive line has a tough matchup this week against Oregon's defensive line.
"It's a big challenge. [Oregon's senior defensive end DeForest Buckner] is a heck of a player. Their nose guard [Alex Balducci] is good, too. He does a great job. It will be a big challenge for our offense, particularly the offensive line. We just have to rise to the occasion. We did nice job with our run blocking and run production last week as I mentioned and as long as we continue to take steps forward, we think we're as physical of an offensive line as there is in the conference. We certainly don't think in any way, shape or form that we're at a disadvantage with our offensive line. We have high expectations and expect to get certain results and we finally got that last Saturday night [at Fresno State] as far as just sheer numbers."
On junior tight end Siale Fakailoatonga, Whittingham said,
"He played a good football game last week, run blocking and with his receiving. He's really starting to emerge as a good football player for us."
The role of redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Hansen could expand as the season moves along. He has special packages that he will run.
"I think you'll see his role expanding. He just got hit right as he released that football [the first pass attempt of his career last Saturday at Fresno State] and that caused him to overthrow it a bit. The play was designed very well, the flea-flicker. Unfortunately, we overshot him. [Kenneth Scott] was wide open. But you did see Hansen more in that game than the week before. I think you'll continue to see that show up on a weekly basis."