Recovery time

It’s eight weeks into the season, and things aren’t getting any better for the U football team. On the heels of last week’s crippling loss to New Mexico, pressure is mounting on Ute coaches and players to start performing.

Already, the team’s aspirations for a conference title are all but shot, and now the depth chart is starting to thin out, making things even more difficult as the Utes try to get back on track and back into bowl contention over the next month.

The Utes are no strangers to injury troubles, but the most recent slate couldn’t have come at a worse time. At the top of the list is star defensive tackle Kelly Talavou, a probable all-conference selection, who suffered a left-knee injury last Thursday and is out indefinitely. The senior has 6.5 tackles for a loss on the season and has anchored a run defense that is holding opposing rushers to just 3.1 yards per carry.

But the trouble doesn’t stop there. The linebacking corps, known for its depth and versatility, has seen both those strengths break down in recent weeks in starters Kyle Brady and Stevenson Sylvester. Brady’s injured shoulder has kept him out of action the last two weeks, giving veteran Malakai Mokofisi more playing time at stud linebacker. Meanwhile, Sylvester, one of the team’s surprises this season, who has made a big impact in his freshman campaign, is doubtful for the second-straight week with a sprained ankle.

That leaves the team with J.J. Williams, a converted defensive back, who has seen increased playing time this season and got his first start against the Lobos. With Sylvester’s status still pending, depth all of a sudden looks like a problem for the Ute linebackers.

With the Utes sitting at 4-4 (including 2-2 in conference play) and struggling greatly in recent weeks, the injuries that are starting to pile up look more glaring than ever.

“Those guys are good football players,” said U head coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’d like to have them in the lineup. But there aren’t many teams in the country who aren’t missing a few guys here and there.”

Still, Whittingham and his staff have bigger problems on their hands-namely, the fact that the Utah defense got manhandled in the second half last week, blowing a 21-point lead en route to the team’s second loss in a row. It was an uncharacteristically bad performance, as the Lobos exploited holes in the Utes’ D-particularly in the middle of the field-to the tune of 350 passing yards by freshman Donovan Porterie. The biggest issue? The fact that, by Whittingham’s count, the Utes missed 23 tackles.

“We have been averaging about six missed tackles a game. When you miss 23 in one game?we hadn’t done that in probably 12 to 15 years. It has been a while. I can’t recall the last time we missed that many tackles,” Whittingham said. “Defensively, that was our main issue, with the inability to man-cover. Our man coverage, for whatever reason, was not good at all in the second half.”

But with a new week and an extended weekend comes renewed focus-or, at least, Whittingham and Co. hope so. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas Rebels come to town this week, having not beaten the Utes in 27 years. UNLV has also never won in Salt Lake City.

Of course, in that regard, the argument could be made that the Rebels have nothing to lose. Already, they’re playing for little to nothing at 1-6 (0-3 in MWC play). The Utes, on the other hand, still hope to get into the postseason. The situation the team faces this year isn’t all that dissimilar from that of last season, when Utah, reeling from a three-game losing streak, snapped that skid on the road against the Rebels. Last year, three crushing conference losses had already derailed the Utes’ season before they finally rebounded to win in Las Vegas. This year isn’t much different-and it will take much of the same effort the Utes showed during the final month of last season to salvage something from the 2006 campaign.

“The leadership has got to step forward, like it did at the end of last year and like it did against TCU this year,” Whittingham said. “The coaching staff has got to stay positive, which we will do. I’ll guarantee that. But we’ll find out what kind of resiliency we have.”

Lennie Mahler

Defensive tackle Kelly Talavou brings down NAU quarterback Jason Murrietta in a Sept. 9 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Talavou is among several Utes out due to injury.