Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time since 2002, the Utah Utes are not going bowling. The program’s run of nine consecutive bowl appearances and an equal number of winning campaigns came to a crashing halt in 2012.
The situation, for obvious reasons, isn’t sitting well with head coach Kyle Whittingham.
“Obviously we’re disappointed with the season,” he said. “Going 5-7 is not what our expectations are — far from it.”
As such, Whittingham is determined to get the Utes back to “playing the level of football that we know we’re capable of.”
There are three ways to do so, he explained, noting that improvement can come by addition, by deletion or by making the guys they already have in the program better.
“And we’re looking hard at all three,” Whittingham said.
It’s all part of the process as Utah adapts to life in the Pac-12. Whittingham has repeatedly said that the bar has been raised in every area with the conference switch. The Utes, he added, need to keep working hard, recruit well and continue to improve across the board.
Even so, some things haven’t changed following Whittingham’s first losing season at the helm. He’s still taking a close look at everything in the program from A to Z.
“You do that every year,” Whittingham said. “So it’s not like all of a sudden we’re 5-7 so we’re going to analyze everything. We do that every single year.”
The overall evaluation takes about a month to complete. In general terms, however, Whittingham acknowledged that his overriding analysis is that the program has simply got to continue to upgrade everything it does.
“Our goal is to try to win the (Pac-12) South,” Whittingham said. “That’s going to be our goal year in and year out.”
In 2012, the quest to do so took an early hit when starting quarterback Jordan Wynn was sidelined with a shoulder injury in the second week of the season, a 27-20 non-conference overtime loss at Utah State.
“It had an impact. It definitely had an impact,” Whittingham said. “Losing Jordan was certainly a low point for our season, particularly when it was career ending.”
Senior Jon Hays and true freshman Travis Wilson wound up stepping in for Wynn, but the offense never developed much of a rhythm. Utah finished the season ranked 11th in the Pac-12 with 324.4 yards of total offense per game.
The shortcomings, along with injuries on both sides of the ball, contributed to an overall lack of success that included a lack of takeaways on defense and miscues on special teams. Utah lost four of six conference games at one point, putting the Utes in a hole that proved to be too tough to climb out of.
“That was a stretch of the grind that is the Pac-12,” Whittingham said. “That’s going to be every year. Every year you’re going to have stretches like that.”
Utah opened league play with consecutive losses to Arizona State (37-7), USC (38-28), UCLA (21-14) and Oregon State (21-7). Wins over California (49-27) and Washington State (49-6) followed before setbacks to Washington (34-15) and Arizona (34-24) assured the Utes of a losing season. They capped things off with a 42-35 victory at Colorado.
“The positive is our team continued to complete all season long. There was never any quit in these guys,” Whittingham said. “They fought to the bitter end. But we all realize that our results have to be better.”
Whittingham is optimistic about the future. He’s expecting some of last year’s redshirts to step in right away and contribute. In addition, Whittingham said the upcoming recruiting class is shaping up to be pretty good.
OFFENSE: Whittingham said the Utes are on the right track as far as getting some continuity at quarterback. Wilson gained valuable experience while starting the final seven games. He’ll have the team’s top three receivers back next season — Dres Anderson, Jake Murphy and Kenneth Scott.
Even so, Whittingham acknowledged things need to be more efficient..
“We didn’t get enough production out of the throw game,” he said.
As for the ground scheme, Whittingham said that it was just OK.
“We had a 1,000-yard rusher and that was great for John White to get to that milestone,” he said. “But we need to be more productive overall in the run game than we were this year.”
Whittingham, however, was pleased that the Utes did a good job taking care of the football.
It wasn’t enough, though, to overshadow the negatives.
“We had offensive struggles throughout the course of the season,” Whittingham said. “That’s no secret. Like I’ve said, we’ve got to get better offensively and be more consistent.”
At 25, Brian Johnson was the nation’s youngest offensive coordinator.
DEFENSE: Whittingham identified Utah’s two biggest issues on defense as a lack of takeaways and red zone defense. The Utes ranked sixth in the Pac-12 with 14 fumble recoveries and eight interceptions. They were eighth in red zone defense, giving up scores in 36-of-43 situations.
“When you’re not taking the ball away and giving your offense short fields and when you’re not tough in the red zone that usually leads to some difficulties,” Whittingham said.
A lack of continuity at linebacker also proved troublesome. Whittingham said that the Utes weren’t as productive in the middle because a variety of different line-ups had to be used. The group, largely comprised of freshmen and sophomores, lacked experience, and the learning curve took longer than anticipated. He’s confident they’ll continue to develop and become a strength.
On the line, Whittingham said highly touted defensive tackle Star Lotulelei played as advertised and that sophomore defensive end Nate Fakahafua progressed as the season went on.
“I think the defensive line played well, even though we maybe didn’t get the sack totals we were looking for,” Whittingham said. “We played the run extremely well.”
As for the secondary, Whittingham acknowledged that losing starting safety Brian Blechen for the first three games because of a suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules was “not ideal” and “certainly didn’t help our cause.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: When it comes to returning kicks, nobody did it better than Utah’s Reggie Dunn. The senior returned four kickoffs 100 yards for touchdowns this season — upping his career total to five in the process.
Whittingham acknowledged it was tremendous.
“It may be many, many years before anybody approaches the records that he set both this season and in his career,” said Whittingham, who noted that senior punter Sean Sellwood and Utah’s ability to pin opponents inside the 20 were other strengths on special teams.
Even so, Whittingham called it a mixed bag.
“I thought we did a lot of good things but we also make a lot of costly, critical mistakes,” he said.
The Utes lose their specialists to graduation and Whittingham acknowledged that they’re in the process of retooling the entire special teams.
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