EUGENE, Ore. — There’s a mall on the left, as you roll into town, and a Target store not far away. Near the Beltline and I-5 junction is a Hilton; ahead, the trusty Willamette.
If you already knew this, you’ve probably been here before. But in a sense, hasn't everyone?
Utah plays No. 6 Oregon on Saturday and, face it, this is familiar territory. Not particularly because it’s in Eugene, though the Utes did play here in 2009. The real familiarity is that they’re in a place they’ve often been, worrying about quarterbacks.
Five years after trusty Brian Johnson directed Utah’s landmark Sugar Bowl win, the Utes are still looking for consistency under center. Strange but true: the position at Utah is as cursed as a Vanilla Ice comeback.
Friday afternoon, the school announced starting quarterback Travis Wilson would not play on Saturday, due to a concussion.
"One of the lessons you learn is you need a quarterback to win, and you've got to have a guy who can play at an efficient level, and you've got to have a guy who is going to be a pro," co-offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said last spring. "When you look at all the guys, the top quarterbacks in the league are first-round draft picks, and that's what the status quo is in order to be successful."
Johnson notes that roughly a decade ago, he and Alex Smith were the only quarterbacks on scholarship. Now there are five, yet the situation remains murky. Wilson, once a promising player, had already hit a wall before the concussion, and his numbers showed it. His hand, arm and mind had each been questioned after three consecutive games with dire results. He has completed just 14 passes in four weeks.
Coach Kyle Whittingham insisted the issues were with the offensive line. Surely that has been a factor, though not the only one. Of two interceptions Wilson threw last Saturday, one softly settled into the mitts of an opposing tackle.
Adam Schulz, the expected starter on Saturday, has yet to show he can consistently move the offense and score touchdowns. Nobody else has experience.
In the spring, Utah pointed out it had Brandon Cox, Conner Manning and Micah Thomas — each believed to be Pac-12 talent — in the warehouse. Yet none has played this season.
“We know we’re going to be inexperienced and we’ve got to play our way through it,” Johnson said this week. “But having sheer numbers, having the sheer talent, that is the baseline. So I feel we’re starting in the right direction.”
Backups are rarely seen if the starter is healthy and effective. But with Wilson out, Utah is dangerously close to where it was when the injury-prone Jordan Wynn tiptoed across the stage. Now it’s Wilson with the injury problems after a nice freshman season and a good start on 2013. Schultz is the new Jon Hays or Terrance Cain — former backups trying to become long-term answers.
Whittingham sounded an ominous note after Tuesday’s practice, saying Oregon’s secondary will be the best he’s seen this season. Though Oregon is a so-so 31st in pass defense, Utah is 67th in passing. The Utes’ 17 interceptions are the fourth-most in the country.
Does this mean another 6-pick day is coming?
Unlikely, if only because Utah might not venture more passes than that.
While Whittingham says Wilson’s out is out, the quarterback might not have been effective anyway. His throwing hand looked like a rare chuck roast after the Stanford game and his arm also seemed suspect thereafter. Just like Wynn, Wilson was missing receivers both long and short, and the interceptions were piling up.
Now the latest injury.
Actually it was getting hard to decide what was holding him back. Was he injured or had he suddenly become the Woody Allen of quarterbacks?
Johnson says Wilson “is as mentally tough as they come, so there’s definitely no denying that.” Which means he had a physical problem, right?
“He’s fine. If you’re playing, you’re out there, so you’re good to go,” Johnson said on Tuesday.
But he's neither playing nor good to go.
Maybe the quarterback problems really were about blocking. (For what it’s worth, Whittingham said the line executed better in practice this week.) Just as likely it’s been about injuries and backups that aren’t experienced enough to soar. In any case, Utah fans shouldn’t be surprised. They know this road by heart.
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