Utes can’t get the little things done


- Erin Burns
For their first three games the Utes lived up to all the preseason hype, responding to every challenge thrown at them to the tune of a 3-0 start to 2014.
Heading into its fourth game against Washington State, a team that has lost to both Rutgers and Nevada on the year, Utah was primed to keep its winning streak alive and walk into the Rose Bowl next weekend with an undefeated mark.
However, even in their fourth year, the Utes have not learned how to close out games against Pac-12 opponents, and until they do, they will remain in the lower tier of the conference.
Sure, there’s the occasional game where Utah gives its fans false hope, such as last season against Stanford, but if you take a step back and look at all the numbers, this team is terrible in close Pac-12 games.
No, this isn’t breaking news. The evidence is clear that the Utes have struggled closing out conference foes, but on Saturday night, they took it to a whole new level.
In the first six minutes of the game, Utah scored a quick two touchdowns, and Rice-Eccles Stadium was rocking. Thanks to an Eric Rowe pick-six and a Kaelin Clay punt return for a touchdown (yes, again), the Utes had everyone believing Utah was actually a good squad that could potentially compete in the Pac-12.
Sorry to break any Utah fans’ hearts, but that’s not going to happen, at least not this season.
The games’ remaining 54 minutes showed the Utes still have a long way to go to compete. Utah mustered only 13 more points after their quick start, allowing Washington State to come storming back.
While I do think this Cougar team is underrated and is led by a quarterback who, at times, can be elite in Connor Halliday, Utah just dropped a game it should have won to a team that has losses to Rutgers and Nevada on its resume. Sure, Washington State gave Oregon, one of the best teams in the nation, a run for its money last weekend, but this was still a very winnable game for the Utes.
And they dropped it quite literally. Dres Anderson, Westlee Tonga and a host of other Utah receivers dropped catchable throws. It’s little plays like those that can lead to your team walking off the field undefeated or walking off searching for answers.
Some will look at the stat-line of this game and see that Ute quarterback Travis Wilson threw for under 200 yards and no touchdowns, all while completing under 50 percent of his passes and put the blame squarely on his shoulders, but don’t be so quick to judge the signal caller.
“He had an off night,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham about Wilson in the press conference after the game. “He didn’t make throws he usually makes. The ball was sailing on him a little bit, and we had a lot of drops. His numbers look a lot better if we make the catches we usually make. It’s no one person’s fault.”
Whittingham is right. I don’t believe Wilson is superstar quarterback by any means, but I do believe there were many factors that could have affected his game Saturday night. With receivers dropping balls, the offensive line protection breaking down and rain and wind throughout nearly the entire game, it’s no wonder Wilson’s game is off.
When everything is going right, it’s the quarterbacks and running backs and receivers who get all the credit, but when things go wrong, the credit turns to blame. That said, these guys don’t deserve all the blame because it was the entire offensive unit that lost this game. The quarterback couldn’t throw, receivers couldn’t catch and the line couldn’t block.
The only positive thing the offense got from this game was the explosive running from running back Devontae Booker, who finished with 182 yards and a touchdown. However, if nothing else in the offense is clicking, including the pass protection, it would be hard for any team in country to win a game with that production.
Look, this isn’t a bad football team. Actually, this may be the best Utah team that has taken the field since making the switch to the Pac-12. The Utes are physical enough and good enough to compete with almost any team in this conference.
But if they can’t get those little things done, the sad truth is they will never be a great football team.
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