We are now in the month of December, and the No. 19 Utes are preparing for their game against Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl. Before we dive deep into the bowl matchup, let's take a look back at home Utah ended up here, their struggles down the stretch in November now that we have had some time to step back and digest the season and not let the emotional aftermath cloud our judgement. Not only will we look at November 2016, but at the last four Novembers. In the final month of the college football regular season Utah is 6-10 (four of those wins have come over Colorado) over the last four years, which is in stark contrast to Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham's stellar 9-1 bowl record. Why does Utah close out the regular season so poorly lately and yet dominate in bowl games? We will breakdown Utah's November struggles.
When Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, they were playing with a roster full of Mountain West recruits. One consequence of this was a lack of playable depth in the Pac-12. Utah's starting 22 was competitive against even the best teams in the conference. However, as the season wore on and injuries mounted, Utah's backups struggled to compete with other Pac-12 teams.
Quarterback injuries played a huge role in Utah’s late-season struggles. In 2012, Utah was playing with a true freshman, third string quarterback (Travis Wilson) by November. In 2013, they were again playing with a backup quarterback (Adam Schulz) after Wilson went down with a season-ending injury. In 2014, Utah used two different starting quarterbacks (Wilson and Kendal Thompson), and Thompson went down in Utah’s November loss to Oregon with a season-ending injury. In 2015, Utah lost their best offensive player in running back Devontae Booker in a November loss to Arizona.
When you consider that all four of the games Utah lost in 2016 were by one score, having a few fewer injuries could have made the difference between the 8-4 record Utah had and a possible 10+ win season and a Pac-12 South championship. In 2015, Utah lost to Arizona in double overtime missing multiple starters, and with Booker playing despite a knee injury that would end his season. Without Booker, Utah would also fall to UCLA in a close loss where they could not get offensive production (wide receivers Britain Covey and Kenneth Scott were both also banged up in that game). As Utah continues to recruit Pac-12 players, they will build better and better depth and will better be able to absorb injuries.
Once Utah gets to a bowl game, the month off allows some banged up players to return. The Utes tend to be healthier in their bowl game than in the final few games of the regular season.
Difficult November Schedules
Utah is 17-1 in regular season nonconference games since joining the Pac-12 (losing only at Utah State in 2012). All of Utah’s nonconference games have taken place in the month of September dating back to Utah joining the Pac-12. Part of this is Utah healthy to start the season (see the first point). Utah also tends to play their weakest opponents (FCS teams for example) during nonconference play. In November dating back to 2012, Utah has faced seven teams ranked in the top 25, including four in the top 10. Utah has also faced teams like Washington State and Arizona that present matchup problems for the Utes in November when the team was depleted due to injuries.
Because of their November struggles, Utah has played in lower tier bowl games since joining the Pac-12, so they have not had to face as stiff of competition in their bowl games as in their November Pac-12 schedules. They also have a month to prepare, and Whittingham has shown time and again how well he can prepare a team when he has more than a week to prepare.
Part of Utah’s late season struggles falls on play calling. Plays that worked well for Utah in September and October often do not in November because Utah does not run a huge variety of plays, and by November, teams have ample film of the Utah offense. Only in 2012 and 2016 did Utah average more yards in November than in September. Injuries and a more difficult schedule certainly contribute to the lack of offensive production late in the season, but plays that worked well earlier in the season just do not seem to in November. Injuries to key offensive players (like Travis Wilson in 2013 and Devontae Booker in 2015) can also force the offensive playbook to shrink as new players have to step into key offensive roles. Another example of this is on the rare occasion Utah runs a trick/unconventional play (like the reverse against Oregon this year for example) it tends to go for big yardage because teams do not expect it. One of Utah’s best November offensive performances was against Arizona State this year. The offense Utah ran was varied with a great mix of run and pass, and Utah shredded the Sun Devils defense. When a Utah’s opponents have most of a season’s worth of film to learn Utah’s tendencies, they have generally prepared well for what they were going to see. The Utah coaching staff over the past two seasons has shown they can develop effective game plans (see Oregon 2015, USC 2016, or Arizona State 2016); they just need to stay more committed to dialing up a variety of plans rather than falling into a rut of relying too heavily on a small subset of plays, which I do think contributed to Utah’s red zone struggles offensively.
With extra time to prepare for bowl games, the Utes tend to work out some unique plays. The 2014 Las Vegas Bowl was an excellent example of this. Utah seemed to really open up the playbook in that game after running very conservative game plans through the month of November.
Overall, I think that injuries have played the biggest role in Utah’s late season struggles. Play calling is a common complaint from Utah fans, and I do think a lack of variety in play calling has hurt Utah. I will say that Utah’s offense in 2016 at least in terms of total yards has been its best since joining the Pac-12; they just failed to score touchdowns in the red zone. Whittingham has said this falls on the coaches. Having to face seven top 25 teams out of a total of 16 November games also does not help, especially with an injury depleted roster. Overall, I think Utah’s November woes are fixable. They are recruiting better than they ever have, which will build depth, and the offense did take strides in 2016 (we will have an article on this). The future is bright for Utah football.