You need the mindset that the ball is mine and I need to get it back for my team so our offense can get the ball back and score. —Jason Whittingham, Utah linebacker
SALT LAKE CITY — Takeaways have been few and far between for the Utah Utes. Aside from an outburst of five in last year’s season finale against Colorado, they’ve had just 20 in 14 games since racking up 33 in the 13 outings of 2011.
The fumbles and interceptions have gotten so scarce, in fact, that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is using the d-word normally reserved for farmers and guys like that.
“Traditionally we’ve been very good taking the ball away with the exception of last year, and so what we’ve been doing, we feel, has worked,” Whittingham said. “But for some reason we’re in a little bit of a drought right now.”
The Utes came up empty in last Saturday’s 51-48 overtime loss to Oregon State. They failed to force a single turnover in the Pac-12 opener.
Whittingham called the lack of turnovers the biggest issue on defense right now. He added that pass coverage is a close second. Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion completed 27-of-44 passes for 443 yards and five touchdowns in the win over Utah. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks had nine catches for 210 yards, including the game-winning reception in overtime.
Utah’s inability to force any turnovers, Whittingham said, left the offense without any short fields to work on — making what quarterback Travis Wilson and company accomplished more impressive. The Utes scored their 45 points in regulation on drives of 64 yards or greater.
On the season, Utah has just three takeaways over games against Utah State (one fumble recovery), Weber State (two fumble recoveries) and Oregon State.
“We have got to find a way to get it corrected. We work on it constantly in practice and it’s not something that we’re hoping it happens and we don’t make a concerted effort during the week to correct it,” Whittingham said. “But so far this year it’s been a turnover drought for our defense and really it carried over from last year. Last year we were not very good turning the ball over as well.”
Utah had 22 takeaways (14 fumble recoveries and eight interceptions) in 2012. Four of the picks and one of the recovered fumbles came in the season-ending 42-35 victory over Colorado, however.
Whittingham says that, at times, takeaways can be a bit of a mindset.
“You’ve got to be careful because if you pound on it too much it can be more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than it already is,” he said. “So we’ve just got to keep working hard and if we do things the right way and if you hustle to the ball, then we feel good things will start to happen in that regard.”
Getting takeaways, he continued, is something the team talks about every day.
“You coach turnovers. It’s something you do in practice. We do it the same way every year,” said Whittingham, who said that there are minor changes here and there, things added from other places that they like. “But the bottom line is with turnovers — and you can talk to a bunch of defensive coaches — you can coach it the same way for five years straight and have different results each year. I think a lot of it is fortuitous bounces of the ball or the personnel you may have that year. But I don’t think there is any magic to getting it fixed or everyone would be doing the same thing in practice and trying to get the takeaways generated.”
Sophomore linebacker Jason Whittingham doesn’t think luck has anything to do with it, either. He said football is a game of inches and just nicking a quarterback’s arm could result in an interception. Toughness and a will to get things can also be pivotal.
“You need the mindset that the ball is mine and I need to get it back for my team so our offense can get the ball back and score,” said Jason Whittingham, who added that takeaways are a very big part of the game — noting that the Utes aren’t going to win many games being minus-3 in turnover margin like they were against Oregon State.
“So we’re definitely going to try and rip the ball out at practice this week because we know we’re going to get a lot of running plays against us,” he said as Utah prepares to face run-oriented BYU Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. “We’re going to try to wrap up and the second or third guys in are going to try to rip it out, but we can also work on intercepting the ball, too, and that’s on the whole team — not just the (defensive backs). I think if we can pressure Taysom Hill, we’ll make him, maybe, throw some bad balls and make some bad decisions. But we’ve just got to get it done as a whole defense. We’re not putting the blame on anyone.”
* * * * *
Utah’s takeaways during the Whittingham era
Year Fumbles Interceptions Total
2013 3 0 3 *
2012 14 8 22
2011 14 19 33
2010 13 12 25
2009 8 17 25
2008 12 19 31
2007 16 17 33
2006 11 17 28
2005 8 15 23
* Through three games