Despite the opinions of frustrated Utah football fans everywhere, the Utes’ 20-19 loss to the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday was one of their best coached football games of the year. A lot of study and analysis went into identifying ASU’s weaknesses and the Utes coaching staff put a solid strategy in place to give their struggling and out-matched team a chance at a win.
Whittingham’s team needed three things to squeak past the leader of the Pac12 South: 1) to win the time of possession battle 2) to shut down Marion Grice and ASU’s run game and 3) to win the turnover battle. In order to give the Utes’ defense a chance against the Sun Devil’s potent, up-tempo offense, Utah needed to keep the ball on the ground most of the game to run the clock and keep the ball out of the hands of Taylor Kelly and crew. They were able to do that fairly effectively, possessing the ball for 33 minutes and limiting ASU to 27 minutes. They also limited the running game to only 149 yards, approximately 40 yards less than their season average, and kept Marion Grice out of the end zone. This strategy held the Sun Devils to their lowest offensive point total all season. Unfortunately, the Utes’ offense did not execute enough to translate that strategy into a win as they stalled in the fourth quarter, throwing 2 interceptions instead of getting into position to kick a game winning field goal. This loss is on the players and their lack of execution, not the coaches.
Looking Forward to Oregon
Utah will need to execute a very similar strategy in order to hang in the game against Oregon this week. Beyond controlling the clock and turnovers, Utah will also need to put a considerable amount of pressure on Mariota in order to be successful. In their loss to Stanford, the Oregon QB was not able to get comfortable all game and seemed to battle a tweaked knee which led to turnovers. The Utes, who are the number one team in the country in sacks per game and the number two team in the Pac12 in TFL per game, should be able to cause similar disruption in the backfield. Where they will struggle is on the perimeter where the speed of the Oregon offense might give them trouble. Look to see the safeties help cover the perimeter in obvious running situations.
For the Fans
Finally, for the fans out there who are growing impatient with the coaching staff and dissatisfied with overall production this year, consider this: not only are the Utes facing the toughest schedule in the school’s history this year, they are also battling the toughest schedule in the country right now (Sagarin Rating). Despite the level of difficulty, the Utes have kept 3 of their 5 losses impossibly close. Additionally, this year’s very young team will return a lot of starters next year, excellent players will come back from injury (such as Murphy, Scott, and Blechen), and recruitment will finally start to pay off in the next year or so as fresh Pac12-level talent returns from missions and comes off of redshirt seasons. This season Whittingham was aiming for a bowl game, so the fans should adjust their expectations accordingly.
That being said, I imagine the Utes will likely break the top 25 next year and go to a Pac12 championship game before Whittingham’s contract expires in 2016. So be patient and stay optimistic!