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View from the Booth: Utes' ship seems like it's back on course again

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 18 2012 8:42 p.m. MDT

It's hard to believe, but we are a quarter of the way through the college football season already. Three games into the season for the Utes, they have two wins and a loss.

A week ago, the sky was falling after the Utes lost to the Aggies in Logan, but here we are a week later and the Utes' football world seems to be back on its proper axis following a third-straight Rivalry Game win over BYU.

At 2-1 and done with their non-conference schedule, the Utes begin their second Pac-12 campaign Saturday night in Tempe, Ariz., against Arizona State. In our new-media world, where everyone craves instant analysis and judgments, I've hesitated to pass any because I didn't think I had a big enough sample size.

Well, after three games, I think we can begin to get a feel for this edition of Utah football.

Let's start with the Utah offense. Most of us in the media — and fans, too — spent the entire offseason wondering what Brian Johnson's offense would look like. And the cynics among us wondered if Jordan Wynn would be around the entire season to run it.

Well, we've got the answer to the latter question and it only took six quarters to get there. So now it's the John Hays and Travis Wilson Show. Hays seems better equipped to handle the rigors of Division I football this season. He has his teammates' respect and an arm that can stretch the field.

What I liked best about his performance against BYU was that he didn't hurt the team with silly turnovers or bad decisions the way he did early last season.

As for Brian Johnson, I still don't think we've seen what he wants to do with his offense yet because we haven't seen a complete offensive unit due to injuries and inconsistencies.

While the Utah offensive line has taken its share of criticism through three games, all the running backs certainly have room for improvement. The receivers and tight ends have probably been the most consistent units on the offense, with Jake Murphy and Kenneth Scott being the biggest standouts to date.

Two areas in need of the most improvement moving forward are the running game and third-down conversions. Utah is averaging just 112 yards on the ground per game and 31 percent conversions on third down, which go hand-in-hand. A better, more consistent running game would lead to more manageable third-down situations.

There's not a whole lot to dislike right now about the Utah defense. Kalani Sitake's crew seems to have things dialed in. Utah is in the top 15 nationally in total defense and in the top 30 for scoring defense.

Many times, preseason hype is just that — hype. But that's not been the case for Star Lotulelei, the future All-American and anchor of the Utes' defense. Star has been exactly that, simply the best and most disruptive player on the field. The Utah defensive front four is the strength of the football team.

Elsewhere, the linebacking corps is coming along. There haven't been a ton of plays made from that group, but the overall athleticism has been upgraded. The Utah secondary has been good and has the potential to be great with the return of Brian Blechen this week. If there's one area of improvement needed with this unit, it's simply to eliminate the silly penalties that have been frequent.

The last group to evaluate is Utah's special teams. Jay Hill has done a fantastic job in recent years crafting a group that has been among the best in the country, which is what makes the first three games of this season so perplexing.

The Utes' special teams have been a mixture of good, bad and ugly thus far. They've had two punts blocked, missed three field goals and had a missed extra point in three games. There's plenty of room for growth and improvement in this unit, and Utah will need it as there are bound to be a number of tight games in Pac-12 play — games where special teams can make the difference.

Three games in and a solid if not spectacular start for Kyle Whittingham's team, but this weekend things get "real." If the Utes want to meet those lofty preseason expectations, then all three areas must continue to improve. Because as we've already seen in the first quarter of the season, outside of Colorado, everyone in the Pac-12 South appears to be better.

Bill Riley is the co-host of the Bill and Hans Show weekdays from 2-6 p.m on ESPN 700 AM. You can follow Riley on Twitter @espn700bill.

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