"Never make excuses. Your friends don't need them and your foes won't believe them."
— John Wooden
The Utes are 2-5 and mired in a four-game losing streak to begin their second Pac-12 campaign. I will not be offering any excuses for the poor start or try to explain it away — mostly because seven games into the season, fans are tired of excuses. They simply want results, progress and, most importantly, wins.
The fact is, the preseason hype surrounding the Utah football team was just that ?— hype! After finishing last year strong by winning four of their last five conference games and beating a solid but not spectacular Georgia Tech team in the Sun Bowl, many inside and outside of the Ute program thought it could be a springboard to a bigger, better year in 2012.
Good theory, but the practice has come a bit harder. The Utes have not been able to adequately fill the shoes of departed offensive tackles John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom. Nor has the quarterback position played out the way Kyle Whittingham had hoped. Utah also misses the steadiness and veteran play at linebacker that Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez provided a year ago.
Seven games into a 12-game season, you can't drastically change who you are, though Utah has tried by playing a true freshman at quarterback and switching back to the spread offense after a season and a half away from it.
While the Utes can't completely make themselves over during the course of the season, there are a variety of things that Whittingham's team can do to point the ship back in the right direction over the final five games.
The Utes haven't missed the postseason since the final year of the Ron McBride era in 2002, and much more often than not, they've won their postseason games. To keep that bowl streak alive and intact, Utah will have to win at least four of its final five games, just to become bowl eligible.
The Utes' final five opponents include Cal, Washington State, Washington, Arizona and Colorado. There isn't a game over those final five that isn't winnable. That said, Utah has to be markedly better in a lot of places to give itself just the chance to win any of those five games.
Here are three areas that I think are most critical to a season turnaround for Utah:
1. Win the turnover battle. The Utes have been awful this year at protecting the football and taking the ball away from their opposition. This is in stark contrast to what most Kyle Whittingham teams have accomplished in the past. Starting a young quarterback, you will have to expect some mistakes, but you can't compound those mistakes with unforced turnovers (see Devonte Christopher in the red zone last week). Plus the defense has to find a way to force some turnovers of its own. It's now been back-to-back games without a defensive takeaway for Utah.
2. Be more disciplined. I'm not sure there's been a game this year when Utah hasn't shot itself in the foot with penalties at key times. Personal fouls, offsides, illegal man downfield — the list goes on and on. This particular team isn't good enough to overcome such miscues. Utah needs to eliminate the inopportune penalties.
3. Help out the Kid. Freshman quarterback Travis Wilson has put up two solid efforts in his first two starts. He's made his share of mistakes, but that's to be expected with a true freshman. Both of his starts could have been more than solid with a little help from his teammates. Veteran wide receivers, tight ends and running backs could make life for the youngster much better by simply doing their jobs.
None of the above ensures Utah will win a game, much less four or five to become bowl eligible. But that's where things have to start in order to have a chance.
Whittingham and his coaching staff are through offering excuses for the season. They know that they are ultimately judged by wins and losses. People want to hear about production, not progress. We'll see if the third time starting is the charm for Wilson and the Utah offense this Saturday against an up-and-down Cal Bears team.
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 Bill on Twitter @espn700bill.
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