"Boy, that escalated quickly ... I mean, that really got out of hand fast."
— Ron Burgandy
I couldn't help but think of my broadcasting idol when thinking about the Utes and how quickly their aspirations of a Pac-12 South title got away from them the last two weekends at Rice-Eccles Stadium. After two relatively solid first-half performances against Washington and Arizona State, things came apart quickly in the third quarter the last two games.
Ten turnovers in the last two games are the single most defining reason that Utah is sitting at (0-3) in Pac-12 play right now and re-configuring their expectations for their inaugural campaign in the Conference of Champions.
So what now? With a divisional championship all but gone, what do the Utes focus on and what are reasonable expectations for a football team whose starting a quarterback had just one scholarship offer coming out of the juco ranks last season?
Let's start with the expectations for this football team. Winning the Pac-12 South and playing in the first-ever Pac-12 championship game was a long shot this season. Nice to aim high, certainly, but in all reality, with a QB coming off major shoulder surgery and transitioning to much tougher competition, it was going to be a tough task.
I've maintained all along that next season was going to be the year for Utah to make a push for a Pac-12 South title, with just 10 seniors on the current depth chart and a quality recruiting class in the pipeline. The experience of having been there and done that will be extremely valuable for the Utes in 2012.
So even though the Utes are 2-3 overall, there are still seven games remaining in the regular season and plenty to play for. Looking at the schedule the rest of the way, there isn't a game on it that isn't winnable IF the Utes hold on to the football.
The road games appear to be the most daunting of the final seven, with trips to Pitt on Saturday, California next week, then Arizona and Washington State in November. Assuming the defense continues to give the same effort it's given through the first five games of the season, and quarterback Jon Hays shows weekly improvement, there's no reason to think that Utah can't finish with eight wins this season. Going 8-4 in their first season in the Pac-12 would be an outstanding finish to what was a shaky beginning.
Here are three critical things that must happen for the Utah to make an 8-4 season a reality:
Ball Security: 13 turnovers (10 in the last two games) are far too many. Utah won't beat Lone Peak, much less a Pac-12 schedule without taking better care of the football.
Improved quarterback play: Jon Hays has been put in a difficult situation, but he needs to make better decisions with his passes. Pittsburgh and the Pac-12 are a far cry from Butte JC.
Consistent offensive line play: Norm Chow has had to play musical linemen for the first five games. The Utes are beginning to develop cohesion and some depth. Right now, and moving forward, they need their starters together, because there just isn't much behind them right now.
Perspective is an important thing as the Utes continue their first year in the Pac-12. While this may not be a championship season, establishing yourself as a program that can compete week-in and week-out is vital. So far, the Utes have proven that they can do that, now they must prove that they can win. Taking care of the football might just be the next and biggest step in that progression.
Bill Riley can be heard as the radio voice of the University of Utah on game days and also on weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the "Bill and Spence Show" on ESPN Radio 700 AM.
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