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Utah Football: What Can a Quarterback Do for U?

Utah may finally have a solid option at QB and the conference is there for the taking. Will Utah take advantage?

Southern Utah v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Have you ever tried playing a round of golf where you couldn’t hit the fairway to save your life? I sure hope not because golf isn’t particularly fun when that’s happening. The last time I played golf, someone in my group, I’m not saying who, gave his golf ball the “I’m not mad, I just think it’s funny,” speech from the tee box as his ball sailed into the desert for the eighth time that day. It wasn’t pretty because golf is the cruelest of all forms of mental torture.

If you’re bad at golf like I am, you generally won’t recover if you are struggling with part of your game. Thankfully some people are not like me. Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer of all time, and he went years where he couldn’t hit his driver straight. There were other times where he could barely make a putt. Yet he still won 14 majors and dozens of other tournaments until his career finally derailed, possibly for good, because of injuries and other struggles. You know what I’m talking about.

There are chances to be successful at a high level even when you don’t have a skill perfectly mastered. Utah has become the prime example of that in college football. Since Utah joined the Pac-12, they have ranked consistently near the bottom of the conference in quarterback play. The highest they finished among Pac-12 teams in passing offense was 9th in 2013.

Even with mediocre quarterback play, Utah has managed to turn in three winning seasons in five years in the Pac-12. The last two seasons have ended with Utah finishing in the Top 25 in the AP Poll after winning the Las Vegas Bowl to close out the season. In 2015, the Utes had a shot at winning the South Division before blowing a game against UCLA at home in the second-to-last game of the season.

Utah didn’t become a force within the Pac-12 because of quarterback play. Kyle Whittingham built a stingy defense and a very strong running game to compete against the power teams in the conference, and to a large degree, it has worked very well. With those other pieces in place, Ute fans can dream about what the team could accomplish with an above average quarterback under center.

Let’s to turn this dream into a reality by making a comparison between Utah and another quality team, Notre Dame. Notre Dame was a Top 10 program in 2015 for nearly the entire season, and finished their brutal regular season schedule at 10-2. They played in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State where they were beaten pretty handily, but they still managed to make it to the game despite being an Independent. It was an incredibly successful season for the Irish.

The numbers last season are surprisingly close between the two schools. The Utes were the 31st in scoring defense last year, Notre Dame was 40th. Both were quality defenses that didn’t give up a lot of points by shutting down drives or forcing turnovers. On offense, the teams were also comparable on the ground. Notre Dame was 29th in rushing while Utah was 46th. The difference between the two rushing attacks was only about 20 yards a game. However, when looking at Total Yards for the two teams, Notre Dame finished 27th in the country while Utah finished 97th. Every aspect of the way Notre Dame’s program was built was comparable to Utah’s, except for the quarterback.

DeShone Kizer played quarterback for most of the season for Notre Dame, he posted a Passer Efficiency Rating of 150, good for 26th in the country. PER grades a quarterback’s performance by finding a balance between completion percentage, touchdowns, and yards to determine the best overall play of a quarterback. You want a quarterback who has solid statistics, but you also want one who doesn’t hurt the team while putting up those numbers with interceptions or a high percentage of incompletions.

To put it simply, it is better to shoot your opponent in the foot 40% of the time then to shoot them in the foot 50% of the time and shoot yourself in the foot the other 50% of the time. Also, if you’re shooting yourself in the foot 50% of the time, you should give up shooting because you’re not very good at it and eventually you might shoot yourself somewhere worse than the foot. Also, who keeps giving you a gun? Long analogy short, in terms of all-around performance, DeShone Kizer was the 26th best quarterback in the country.

Travis Wilson definitely did not match DeShone Kizer in PER. Wilson finished 82nd in PER out of 124 qualifying quarterbacks last season. All of this is to say that Utah’s quarterback play was lacking last year. But imagine putting DeShone Kizer in at quarterback for the Utes, what does the celling become for last season? Utah finished as a ten win team, but suddenly a Pac-12 title isn’t out of the question, and a season like Notre Dame’s with a great bowl game doesn’t seem farfetched.

Just FYI, I’m still making this comparison even though Notre Dame just lost to Texas, because it’s about last season and DeShone Kizer was still insanely good in that game.

This season, the Utes have one of the most experienced offensive lines in the Pac-12, quality running backs, and have plenty of returning starters from last year’s fearsome defense. The biggest difference for Utah is Travis Wilson will no longer be the starting quarterback, Troy Williams will be taking snaps for the Utes. With all the talent the Utes have, once again this season has the potential to be special.

The Utes played their first game against Southern Utah on Saturday, and there were a lot of positives. Utah was one of five teams to post a shutout in Week 1. Yes it was against an FCS opponent, but it’s impossible to dismiss a shutout no matter who the opponent is.

Then there was the offense. The running game had its moments. Troy McCormick was a productive option in the backfield breaking out some large runs behind some shifty moves. Presumed starting running back Joe Williams struggled to get any momentum going. Tim Patrick even broke out as a top wide receiver option. The story though was Troy Williams.

Williams threw for 272 yards and 2 TD with a 57% completion rate. That was good for a 141.4 PER. Those aren’t light the world on fire numbers by any stretch, but if Williams posted that PER for an entire season in 2015 he would have finished with the 42nd best rating in the country. That’s 40 spots higher than Travis Wilson and also well ahead of college football darlings from last season like Josh Rosen and Connor Cook.

A few disclaimers here, once again I realize it is just an FCS opponent and this is only a single game sample size, but there were a few factors to suggest that Williams could have a similar level of play going forward.

Utah used very vanilla play calling against Southern Utah, they figure to get more creative next week against BYU. The offensive line struggled as well, but with all the experience and talent the line has, it figures to get better as the season progresses. Most importantly though, Williams showed he could make throws. He hit Raelon Singleton for a 52 yard pass on the first drive of the game and connected with Tim Patrick for 57 yards and the duo’s second touchdown of the game.

Even if Williams does take a step back or a couple, it’s pretty obvious he will be an upgrade over Travis Wilson. Now the question remains, what can Utah do with a quality player under center?

The Pac-12 had a rough weekend to put it nicely. To put it not so nicely, guarding Draymond Green without a cup would end better than this weekend ended for the conference. It was not good. The South was especially disastrous with Arizona losing an ugly close game to BYU and UCLA dropping what could have been a solid nonconference win against Texas A&M. Worst of all, USC’s football team was sucked into a portal forcing the team to be replaced with members of the band at the last second. May those players return safely in time to play good football against Stanford in two weeks.

All in all, the South looks up for grabs this year. Colorado is the only other team in the division that looks on the rise, and they are still behind Utah in talent. The Arizona schools figure to have down years, and the Los Angeles schools have a million questions surrounding them. There’s no dominant power left, and the most consistent road to success in football is a strong defense and a quality offense that scores enough without damaging themselves in the process. Just look at the defending champions in both college and the NFL if you don’t believe me.

If Utah can follow the mold of last season’s South Division champion, they could go to their first conference championship game. USC had a worse defense and run game then Utah last year, the only difference was, you guessed it, quarterback. Cody Kessler, a future Cleveland Browns draft pick, was the 20th best QB in PER last season and carried the offense for large parts of the season.

So the pressure falls on Troy Williams’ shoulders this year. Kyle Whittingham would probably be ecstatic if Williams could replicate his performance against SUU every game this season. That’s not going to happen, but Utah needs a player who can make big plays or move the offense when the run game isn’t there, just like Williams did in his first game. He doesn’t have to be perfect, but even an above average quarterback could take the Utes a long way. The division is there for the taking this year, and to a lesser extent, so is the conference. Williams will be the main factor in determining whether Utah actually takes them.

A lot has to go right in any given game or season for a football team to have success. The Utah coaching staff has figured out how to get the best out of the defense and the running backs in order to win games in a highly competitive conference. Now the Utes might have an answer to what has consistently been their biggest flaw as a program, and that means the sky is suddenly the limit. We’re going to see if Troy Williams and Utah will be able to take advantage of all that open air.