Hurtin’ Utes return to Salt Lake City

It’s taken a couple days, but the shock has worn off for the U football team. The Utes saw their early season enthusiasm wilt away Saturday afternoon as they posted a second-half goose egg en route to a 31-10 defeat to UCLA.

Now, the team has to regroup quickly as it prepares to host Northern Arizona in its home opener Saturday night. The weekend disappointment against the Bruins exposed a slew of deficiencies and begs questions that will have to be answered this week. The first and most obvious, of course, is how the Utes will overcome the problems that were on national display Saturday-the lack of execution by the revered offense, the complete second-half breakdown, the turnovers and the complete dearth of big-play ability that has come to characterize the Utah program in recent years.

“It was a tough road trip to Pasadena,” U head coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday. “We came away getting beat handily and didn’t play well on either side of the ball.”

Upset on the Lumberjacks’ minds

Northern Arizona was thinking upset last week, holding a 14-14 tie with high-powered Arizona State until the Sun Devils finally broke through with three touchdowns in the final frame.

But the Lumberjacks made it clear: They’re no pushover. Quarterback Jason Murrietta took full advantage of a shaky ASU defense, finding junior wideout Alex Watson for 206 yards on 11 catches. As a whole, NAU put up 312 yards of total offense and forced two Sun Devil turnovers, but a fourth-quarter interception by Murrietta gave Arizona State the momentum it needed to put the clamps down.

After an impressive losing effort like that, Whittingham and Co. refuse to take the Lumberjacks lightly, especially considering the number of upsets in college football over the weekend-and especially after such a porous performance of their own.

“All you have to do is look at the scores from this weekend. New Mexico, Colorado and Duke all getting whacked by I-AA opponents in their own stadiums,” Whittingham said. “Then NAU taking Arizona State 14-all into the fourth quarter. That’s all you have to say to get your players’ attention, I would hope.”

Wide load

One area in which Utah is looking for significant improvement-and quickly-is the receiving corps. Once thought to be one of the team’s strengths-boasting combinations of talent and experience, size and speed-the wide receivers disappeared against an untested Bruin secondary. Only Brent Casteel-who scored the Utes’ only touchdown and accounted for 103 yards of total offense of his own-showed the spark that was expected of the whole group. Only three other receivers caught passes, with only two pass players going for 20 yards or more.

“I’m disappointed with that group. I’ve been bragging about that group all off-season,” Whittingham said, pointing to its poor blocking in particular. “They were soft in their blocking. There is no other way to put it. If you don’t block here, you won’t play here. I made that known in no uncertain terms yesterday in the team meeting?What you saw Saturday is not indicative of what we think we have in that group.”

Two men down

The Utes came out of fall camp mostly healthy, but return from Pasadena licking their wounds. Starting wideout Brian Hernandez, who was injury-plagued last year but is a preseason all-conference pick, suffered a thigh contusion in Saturday’s loss and will likely be out of action against the Lumberjacks. The same goes for starting free safety Steve Tate, who is battling a sprained knee.

Skip to my Louie

One bright spot Whittingham pointed to after Saturday’s ballgame was the kicking game. Louie Sakoda, handling both placekicking and punting duties, split a 44-yard field goal through the uprights and averaged 42.7 yards on six punts. He was honored for his performance as the MWC’s Special Teams Player of the Week.

Kamil Krzaczynski

Brett Ratliff tries to sneak by UCLA’s Alterraun Verner during Saturday’s 31-10 loss to the Bruins.