After every loss by a college football team, fans are going to panic. It’s the nature of fandom to get up in arms about everything that happens in a given game, good or bad.
Utah fans exhibited various levels of trepidation about the performance of the team following an ugly loss to Cal on Saturday. The five point defeat absolutely should have been a Utah victory. When you run seven plays inside the opponent’s ten yard line, you should score every time. Instead, Cal stopped the Utes and handed them their first loss of the season.
One loss doesn’t define a season, but repeated mistakes over and over again can eventually determine a team’s fate. I looked at some of the major issues that hurt the Utes in this game and which ones are going to be long term concerns, and which ones likely aren’t going to have a major impact on the rest of the season.
Over the course of a season, injuries are going to impact every team in some way. They aren’t determined by talent or coaching, injuries are often just pure bad luck. A wrong move could end a season on any single play.
Utah has had some terrible injury luck this year. That’s not just because the Utes have already lost four players for the entire season, but because the injuries happened at positons that hurt the team the most.
Coming into the season, the expectation was that Utah would have one of the deepest lines on both offense and defense in the Pac-12. After five weeks, injuries are threatening to derail the preseason love. Center Hiva Lutui went down in spring practices with a torn ACL forcing Senior Tackle and Team Captain J.J. Dielman to take over the position. Now Dielman is also out for the season now after suffering a lower leg injury early in the game against Cal. Lo Falemaka will take over at center now, but after expecting to have a deep line to fuel the offense, the Utes are scrambling to find five guys to line up on every down.
The injuries don’t end on the offensive line either. Kylie Fitts was another early season loss with a foot injury, but the Utes should have had plenty of depth on the defensive line to compensate for the loss. However, the team was without the dominating inside presence of Lowell Lotulelei against Cal due to a shoulder injury. Without his disruptive play on the line, the Utes mustered only one sack despite Cal quarterback Davis Webb throwing 35 times in the game.
Untimely injuries have robbed Utah of their two biggest strengths coming into the season, but just to add insult to injury (sorry), injuries are threating to decimate the Utes weakest position group, the receiving corps. Tim Patrick was hobbled with a lower leg injury against Cal and spent most of the second half on the sideline. Recently reinstated Cory Butler-Byrd didn’t even make the trip to Berkeley for reasons that still haven’t been revealed. Patrick was making his case to be considered a true No. 1 receiver following the USC game, and his loss, plus the potential of more missed time for Butler-Byrd, only creates more issues for a hobbled team. Every team is going to have to face injuries this season, but right now, Utah is dealing with injuries to the wrong players at the absolute wrong time.
Defense Allowing Big Plays: Not Concerning
It’s a little weird that there was so much talk surrounding the defensive effort of the Utes after they only allowed 28 points in a game against a team that had been averaging over 45 points a game. Some of that speaks to the quality of defense Utah has played so far this season, but a lot of the increased scrutiny is due to the amount of big plays Utah allowed.
Cal scored four touchdowns in the game, and all of them were passing touchdowns. The shortest of those touchdowns thrown by Davis Webb was 24 yards, the rest were 40 plus yards. While big pass plays are never good, it’s also necessary to adjust expecations based on the opponent.
Cal lives and dies with the passing game. Webb had been averaging 460 yards per game through the air, but he only produced 306 yards against the Utes. Some of this was a factor of Utah controlling the ball for so long, but the Utes also held him below his season average in both completion percentage and yards per attempt.
The secondary played a decent game despite Webb having all the time in the world to throw to some of the best receivers in the conference. As mentioned earlier, the line only managed one sack the entire game. Cal did try to run the ball occasionally, but the Golden Bears could only get 56 rushing yards on 14 attempts. The pressure to slow down Cal was placed almost soley on the seconday, and they held up their end of the deal.
The big touchdown passes are a bad look for the Utes. Those are the plays that show up on highlight reels, but the defense as a whole played a solid game. The defense did its job, it gave the offense a chance to win the game at the end.
Red Zone Offense Issues: Concerning
Last week when I laid out what Utah had to do to win the Pac-12 South, my very first item was score touchdowns in the red zone. That didn’t happen for the Utes week, and it needs to be fixed in a hurry if the Utes are going to recover from this loss.
The most obvious failure in the red zone was on the final drive of the game. The officials may have screwed up, but there is no excuse for having seven (!) plays inside of Cal’s 10 yard line and failing to score a touchdown, especially when three of those plays were inside the 2 yard line.
For the entirety of the game, Utah reached the red zone six different times, yet they only scored on three of those possessions. A .500 red zone percentage for the entire season would put Utah solidly in last place out of the entire country. As it stands right now, Utah’s .750 scoring percentage inside the red zone puts them tied for 107th out of all the FBS schools.
Kyle Whittingham and Aaron Roderick, the Offensive Coordinator in charge of play calling, need to find a solution to the team’s red zone issues. For a team that doesn’t have a lot of big plays, this is going to be a major issue going forward. The solution might lie in throwing more inside of the red zone, which brings us to the next issue.
Lack of Faith in Troy Williams: Concerning
Whittingham and Roderick have decided they don’t want to throw the ball once they hit the red zone no matter what. There is some decent logic behind this decision. In the first three games of the season, Troy Williams threw four interceptions, three of them came inside the red zone. Williams has been a major contributor to Utah’s atrocious red zone statistics so far.
However, in the game against USC, Williams was perfect when it mattered. He threw the game winning touchdown, accounted for three total touchdowns, and didn’t turn the ball over once. The coaching staff didn’t seem to care about Williams’s performance against the Trojans this past weekend. The Utes ran 23 plays inside of the Cal 20 on Saturday. Of those plays, only four of them were called pass plays.
On the decisive final drive, Williams was allowed to throw the ball twice. The first time was on 4th and Goal from the 11, and he ended up drawing a pass interference call against the Golden Bears. The second time was on 2nd and Goal, where he made a high pass to Evan Moeai, who couldn’t bring it in for the score.
Utah has to find a happy medium between the run and the pass game in the red zone. For all the offseason preaching about having a balanced offense, the Utes remain a run first and run only team when they are in the red zone. With an entire stable of quality running backs, it’s understandable that Utah will want to run the ball a lot, but teams are starting to figure out that they call sellout to stop the run whenever the Utes are within range of the end zone.
Cal executed that strategy perfectly; they went all out to stop the run on the last drive of the game, and Utah played right into their hand. With 14 seconds left, they ran the ball on first down from the 2 and got stuffed. The whole stadium knew Utah was throwing on the next play since there were only eight seconds left and the Utes had just used their last timeout. On the final play, every casual observer of the game could tell you that the Utes were going to run the ball. They did, and between offensive miscommunication and nearly the entire Golden Bears defense breaking through the line, the Utes never had a chance to score.
It’s time to put more faith in Troy Williams going forward. He’s shown the ability to make good decisions in the red zone, and Utah can’t afford to go back to being one dimensional on offense. It was the team’s downfall last year, and so far it has been the team’s downfall when it counts this year. Williams might occasionally make bad mistakes in the future, but it’s something the coaching staff is going to have to learn to live with for the sake of scoring touchdowns.
Pac-12 Refs: Not Concerning
How did you feel about the official’s impact on the end of the game Coach Whittingham?
There’s been a lot of criticism of Pac-12 refs lately. Jim Mora was even reprimanded for comments he made about the refs following UCLA’s win over Arizona. At this point though, it’s fruitless to complain all the time about officiating. The refs made some terrible calls that benefited the Utes and some calls that really hurt the team. Both instances will probably happen in again in the future. Their biggest mistake of the game just happened to be highly publicized and go against the losing team.
Yelling at Pac-12 refs for making mistakes is like going outside and yelling at the sun for shining. The suns going to keep shining and the refs are going to keep screwing it up. It’s a tough job. Besides, can’t we find something more constructive to do with our time? Like yelling at things that acutely deserve it, like clouds.
Losing this Game: Undecided
I’m not trying to say losing this game isn’t bad, it is. Losing is always bad. You play to win the game. However, is this game going to be the deciding result of the season? No. This game hasn’t knocked Utah out of contention for anything other than an undefeated season. Technically, the Utes still could make the Pac-12 title game, a New Year’s Six Bowl, or even the College Football Playoff. I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but nothing is off of the table yet.
The Utes have a brutal schedule going forward, but there’s not a single game that would be labeled a guaranteed loss. Other than injuries, the team can still fix a lot of the problems it’s having. This game doesn’t have to be anything more than an anomaly on the schedule. It’s not going to be easy, but the great thing about college football is it gives you a new chance to win every single week.