Utes looking for answers

By and

The U football team is beginning to see a pattern emerging as it hits the final five weeks of the season-although finding such a pattern and figuring out a way to solve the problems are two very different things.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham expressed concern Monday over a consistent problem with turnovers-or, rather, an inconsistent problem: When the Utes take care of the ball, they win; when they don’t, they lose. “It’s not hard to figure out,” Whittingham said.

Indeed, the Utes have turned the ball over 11 times in their three losses and just four times in their four victories. But the inconsistencies don’t end there-in all three losses, the U offense has been practically nonexistent. For instance, in the team’s 31-15 loss to Wyoming over the weekend, Utah managed just 144 yards of total offense-the program’s lowest single-game total this decade.

The story was much the same against Boise State on Sept. 30, when the Utes totaled just 178 yards and threw four interceptions, and in the season opener against UCLA, when Ute quarterbacks completed just 14 of 34 passes and the offense combined for 287 yards to the Bruins’ 425.

Certainly something else is amiss. Perhaps not coincidentally, the U’s three-week offensive performances have come against a trio of swarming defenses that have challenged Ute backs and receivers and made it tough on senior quarterback Brett Ratliff.

“Part of it is when we face particularly good defenses-UCLA, Boise, Wyoming-that’s when the turnovers come, and I’m sure they have something to do with that,” Whittingham said. “But that is the bottom line for this football team. If we take care of the football and possess the football, we’ve won. When we don’t, it’s been the exact opposite.”

Even the vaunted U offensive line finally wilted under the pressure of a penetrating defense Saturday-after going the first six games of the year without giving up a sack, the front five made up for it big-time-giving up six.

“We didn’t do as good a job picking up zone pressure as we had done earlier in the year,” Whittingham said. “They hit us with some zone pressures out of odd fronts. That had not presented a big problem in the first six games. For whatever reason, in this game, we did not respond to their odd-front looks.”

The one notable exception to this trend, of course, was the team’s impressive showing against a stout TCU defense two weeks ago.

But thus far, performances like that have been the exception and not the rule. The team’s best offensive showings-which have subsequently led to its other three wins-have come against the Division I-AA club Northern Arizona, perennial pushover Utah State and winless MWC foe San Diego State. It’s safe to say that the 2006 season so far has decidedly been a mixed bag.

And what do the Utes have to look forward to? A defense that, while not up to the level of Wyoming, can certainly exploit the Utes’ Achilles’ heel: turnovers. The defense belongs to the New Mexico Lobos, who host Utah Thursday night in a game that could make or break the Utes’ potential for the rest of the season.

Probably the biggest red flag the Utes see is that the Lobos are second in the conference in takeaways-second only to the Utes, oddly enough. New Mexico has picked off eight passes in seven games and recovered nine fumbles for a turnover margin of +6 (also second in the league). Naturally, that could play a factor once again this weekend, so Whittingham and his staff are making ball security a focus in practice this week.

“With the possessions in a game down due to the time-structure change, there are only about 12 or 13 possessions in a game now, when there used to be 14 or 15,” he said. “If you throw four of those away on turnovers, it is almost impossible to win.”