At times, the Utah football team has stood toe-to-toe in 2013 with some of the best teams the Pac-12 has to offer, but the Utes are still sitting near the bottom of the league standings. Consistency has been elusive for Utah after it went undefeated in non-conference play.
Whether it's turnover issues, third-down inefficiency or penalties, the Utes have been particularly bitten when facing ranked opponents this year. These issues have been a driving force behind the Utes going just 1-5 in league play thus far.
Looming is a matchup against No. 6 Oregon, a team that dealt with its own issues last week. The Ducks, once a strong contender for a national championship game berth, were dealt a big blow when fourth-ranked Stanford beat Oregon 26-20 in Palo Alto, Calif., in a game that wasn't that close. The Ducks gave up 274 yards rushing to the Cardinal.
While beating Oregon on the road may be a long shot — the Utes lost in their last trip to Eugene and they enter the game a big underdog — Utah has played its ranked opponents close in 2013.
During Pac-12 play, the Utes have lost by an average of 10 points against the three non-ranked opponents they've faced: Oregon State, Arizona and USC. Against UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State, all ranked at the time they played Utah, the margin of defeat has been just 0.7 points.
Utah leads the nation in sacks per game, averaging 3.67 per contest, and its defense is improving, giving up 19.5 points per game the past two weeks.
"They are dangerous. The best thing they do defensively is play hard," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich told the Oregonion about Utah. "Coach (Kyle) Whittingham has been a great defensive coach and you can see his brand all over this defense, and playing hard has always been a trademark of theirs. They put a lot of pressure on Stanford, in terms of getting ahead — they were ahead by a touchdown — and they made them come from behind."
Yet, it's been a season of what-ifs for the Utes, especially after they have lost three games since upsetting then-No. 5 Stanford in early October. Inconsistency in several aspects of the game has haunted Utah.
On Saturday, penalties played their part in helping the then-No. 23 Sun Devils stay close enough to be able to rally past the Utes, 20-19.
While Utah committed seven penalties for 80 yards, Arizona State was flagged just three times for 14 yards.
One sequence in particular ended a Utah scoring threat. With the Utes leading 9-7 in the second quarter and facing a first-and-10 at the ASU 30, senior running back Kelvin York was stopped for a 1-yard loss. Taking exception to the way he was stood up and pushed back a couple yards after the whistle, York retaliated, lunging at Sun Devil linebacker Chris Young.
That earned York a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty, and the Utes punted three plays later.
While Utah eventually took a 19-7 lead, any type of points on that drive could have swayed the final outcome. Ute kicker Andy Phillips has hit 15-of-18 field goals this season, and a field goal attempt from where York incurred the penalty was well within his range — he hit a 43-yarder and a career-long 51-yarder against Arizona State.
“I thought that was one of the keys in the game,” Sun Devils coach Todd Graham told the Arizona Republic. “A lot of coaches don’t believe in that. They think penalties are irrelevant. That was a huge play in the game. And for what? Why would you get that?”
The Sun Devils have proven to be disciplined this year as they rank fifth in the country in penalty yards per game at 29.89 per game. In contrast, the Utes are 63rd at 48.22 yards per game.
Utah's next opponent, Oregon, is 115th nationally, with 71 penalty yards per game. But the Ducks overcome that deficiency with an explosive offense, one that averages 51.7 points per game.
While penalties haven't always been the mistake(s) that cost the Utes, other factors of the game have crept up at inopportune times. Two of those biggest factors have been third-down conversions and turnovers.
In games against then-No. 12 UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State, the Utes gave up nine turnovers; against their five non-ranked FBS opponents, Utah has handed away 10 turnovers, a full turnover less per game. The Utes' turnover margin of minus-1.0 per game is 115th in the country.
While Utah hasn't been impressive in third-down conversion percentage overall — its 31.9 conversion rate is 109th nationally — the Utes' percentage has gone down when it's played ranked opponents. Against the Bruins, Cardinal and Sun Devils, Utah converted just 28.9 percent of its third downs, while it converted 32 percent against its five FBS opponents.
Yet, despite these numbers, the three games against ranked teams show just how close the Utes could be to having more wins in Pac-12 play.
During the 27-21 win over Stanford, the Utes converted 6-of-14 third downs and gave up just one turnover.
Compare that to the two losses: vs. the Bruins in a seven-point game, the Utes had their worst game of the three with six turnovers while converting 2-of-13 third downs. In the one-point loss to Arizona State, the Utes had two turnovers and went 5-of-18 on third down.
With some improvement in these areas, the line between winning and losing could be narrowed even further.
For a team needing two wins in its final three games — with games at Washington State and home against Colorado also ahead — the Utes need to find ways to make these consistency issues turn in their favor to go bowling, even if it's just a little.
Whittingham said his team, which didn't go to a bowl last year, is improved this season. Still, getting wins will cure some of Utah's ails.
"We're more competitive, but it’s not about being competitive," Whittingham told the media during his weekly press conference on Monday. "It's about getting W's, and so, that’s the next hurdle we got to get over is finding a way to win these games. But like I said, last year, a lot of the games we weren’t even in. So, we made progress, but nobody cares unless you get the W. Nobody cares what else is going on."
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