Utah Utes football must overcome tragedy, poor play

Published: Friday, Sept. 2 2011 11:29 p.m. MDT

Utah teammate Ron Tongaonevai's wife Janelle was killed in a car accident Thursday night in West Valley City around 10:30 p.m., just about 90 minutes after the Utes beat Montana State in the season opener 27- 10. A Jeep heading west hit her car in the intersection of 4800 West and 3200 South, according to police. The 38-year-old male driver of the Jeep was also killed.

Shawn Emery

SALT LAKE CITY — It wasn't easy for the Utah Utes to focus on football Friday. The death of defensive lineman Ron Tongaonevai's wife Janelle weighed heavy on their hearts. She was killed in a car accident Thursday night, less than two hours after Utah's 27-10 season-opening win over Montana State.

"It's tough," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "That's the bottom line."

In a released statement earlier in the day, Whittingham noted that the players and staff are grieving for Ron and their top priority is to support him. A team tribute is in the works.

"Our hearts go out to Ron and families and friends on both sides of the marriage for the tragic loss of his wife Janelle," Whittingham said. "This is a devastating loss for everyone involved in our program."

Even though the Utes held planned meetings and reviewed the Montana State game film on Friday, Whittingham noted that everyone's thoughts and prayers are with Tongaonevai.

"It's very difficult to concentrate on anything else," he said.

The players, as previously scheduled, will get Saturday and Sunday off before resuming practice for next week's Pac-12 opener at USC.

That, however, doesn't mean the Utes will be idle this weekend. They'll be watching USC's opener against Minnesota closely.

"That will give us a lot more insight than what we have right now," Whittingham said. "Every year is its own separate entity and so we'll have to see what kind of team they look to be based on (that) game."

Last season's tapes and offensive coordinator Norm Chow's insight are other resources the Utes are employing.

As for Utah's season opener, Whittingham said the film revealed pretty much what he thought immediately after the game. Topping the list of shortcomings was a lack of productivity in the throw game. The Utes netted just 101 yards passing. The longest connection was 15 yards.

"We've got to do a little better job of throwing the ball down the field," Whittingham said. "(And) have a chance to take a couple of more shots up the field than we took last night."

A couple of protection and alignment issues also surfaced, as a did a bad center-quarterback exchange. On defense, Whittingham said a few routes got past the secondary and he would like to see improvement on the punt game. Utah averaged just 37.8 yards on five kicks, placing none inside the 20.

Those were among the things, he explained, that need to be worked on.

On the positive side, Whittingham was pleased that the offense did not turn the ball over and that running back John White IV ran for 150 yards on 19 carries.

Defensively, Whittingham noted that the Utes only missed eight tackles, which he said was very good for a season opener. Other bright spots were Brian Blechen's two interceptions and the defense limited Montana State to just 75 yards on the ground.

Kicker Coleman Petersen's two field goals and three PATs also drew praise.

Utah's overall effort, however, was dubbed as "less than impressive" by Whittingham. He noted that a lot of things need to be cleaned up before playing USC.

"You typically make your biggest improvement between game one and two, that's an old adage that usually holds up," Whittingham said. "There's some positives to take from it. Never discount a win, first of all, and we got a win. That's important.

"Montana State is a good football team and give them credit for a lot of our inefficiencies because of some good things that they were doing," he continued. "But the whole task at hand now is getting ready for the USC Trojans. We've got eight days to do that and that's what we're doing."

EXTRA POINTS: Utah has now won four consecutive season openers. ... Four true freshmen made their collegiate debuts Thursday — safety Eric Rowe, defensive end Nate Fakahafua, punt returner Charles Henderson and running back Harvey Langi (special teams). ... The Utes have seven consecutive sellouts at home.

Email: dirk@desnews.com Twitter: @DirkFacer

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