The 2013 Utah football team is off to a strong start.
The Utes took care of business during their non-conference schedule, finishing 3-0 against in-state opponents Utah State, Weber State and BYU. However, despite its non-conference successes, Utah’s overtime loss to Oregon State in its first conference game leaves lingering doubts about how well the Utes will fare as they turn their focus to the remaining Pac-12 schedule.
Today we break down 10 things that Utah football must do as it heads into the meat of the schedule.
Dan Sorensen is the editor in chief of UteZone.com, part of the Rivals.com network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and Basketball Writers Association of America. Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Utah defense has struggled to force turnovers this season, and the lack of the big play on the defensive side of the ball was one of the primary contributors to Utah’s loss against Oregon State. That is especially true in the secondary, where the Utes have only one interception in four games.
If Utah is to make any kind of move in the Pac-12 this season, the Utes need to hang on to interceptions, force fumbles and make big plays on the defensive side of the ball.
The Utah secondary was torched by Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion, but came back with a much stronger effort against BYU — albeit against a weaker passer in Taysom Hill. None of Utah’s top four cornerbacks had FBS football experience prior to this season, so it’s not a surprise that they’ve been forced to learn on the job.
However, Utah needs the learning curve to accelerate if it is to stop top-flight offenses such as UCLA. Safeties Eric Rowe and Michael Walker have both played adequately but need to step up and force turnovers if the Utes are to become a top defensive unit in the Pac-12.
Sophomore running back Bubba Poole has been another pleasant surprise this fall. Poole’s 304 rushing yards on the season lead the team, and his 5.2 yards per carry average puts him among the best backs in the Pac-12 in that regard. He has also shown the ability to be a playmaker, catching the ball out of the backfield and averaging 30 receiving yards per game.
Poole is only averaging 18.25 touches per game, which given his big play ability may be a little low. Utah’s offense has been solid thus far this season, but could be better if it keeps feeding Poole the ball.
In four games, Utah has lost the turnover battle only once — its overtime loss to Oregon State. Given the defense’s inability to force turnovers and create scoring opportunities, the Utah offense must protect the football.
If the Utes can consistently win the turnover battle, they have the offensive firepower to put themselves in a position to win every game remaining on the schedule. However, any game that Utah loses the turnover battle will be especially difficult to win.
Quarterback Travis Wilson’s maturation as a quarterback and offensive leader has been one of the pleasant surprises of this season. Wilson has made teams pay with his execution of the read option, and he has shown nice touch as a passer thus far this season. The Utah offensive line has also shown improvement over last season and will need to continue its progress as the Utes face superior athletes in the Pac-12.
Wilson has been especially effective when he has time to make decisions, so it will be incumbent on the offensive line to give him time to operate.
Utah had a terrible string of luck with injuries in fall camp and early in the season, which culminated in the loss of starting receiver Kenneth Scott in week one. Tight ends Jake Murphy and Westlee Tonga got banged up in the BYU game but should be back to full strength soon.
Injuries are a part of football and are something that every team must deal with. However, Utah needs to avoid injuries to its major stars if it hopes to make a splash in conference.
Utah has recorded 15 sacks on the season and ranks seventh in the nation entering this weekend, averaging 3.75 sacks per game. Kalani Sitake’s defensive scheme centers on stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. With a long list of elite passers and receivers on the horizon, Utah’s young secondary will need help from the pass rush to slow down opponents’ passing attacks.
Defensive ends Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard will lead the charge. If both players can continue their strong play, that will bode well for Utah’s prospects during conference play.
Utah has had some big plays on special teams already this year. Place-kicker Andy Phillips has been a welcome surprise for the Utes and is perfect on the season. Phillips’ perfect execution on the onside kick against Utah State provided a huge shift on momentum that led to the Ute win. Utah will need the special teams unit to continue its strong play.
The Utah return game has been average thus far this season, and will need to improve for the Utes to be a threat in conference.
The Utah defense, led by a strong defensive line, has been tough against the run, allowing 118 yards per game and only three yards per rush.
Future opponents Oregon, Arizona, UCLA and Stanford are all top-50 teams in rushing offense, and Utah will need to force them to be one dimensional to have a chance to win any of those games.
This Utah team is one of the most resilient and mentally tough teams in the Kyle Whittingham era. The team battled back from big deficits against both Utah State and Oregon State, and played with poise in its first game on the road against BYU. Utah will need to keep that edge and toughness in the weeks ahead as it prepares to face a tough in-conference schedule.
If the Utes can stay positive through adversity and keep fighting, they will most likely be successful in their quest for a bowl.