On second thought, perhaps no one should be surprised that the University of Utah is struggling on offense.
After all, two of the Utes' original starting linemen were converted from defense only last spring. Another starting lineman sat out last season to be a dairy farmer. The starting fullback was a reserve tight end last year. The quarterback underwent off-season shoulder surgery. Of the team's top two receivers, one is a redshirt freshman, the other a sophomore junior college transfer. And the team's top running back missed most of training camp and shows no sign of returning to the starting lineup.Is it any wonder this bunch has scored just three touchdowns in its last 10 quarters of play, and seven points in each of its last two games?
"To be honest, when you have a new program, new kids and a new system, you don't know what you have until you get in the heat of battle," says offensive coordinator Dan Henson. "It just takes time."
But how long? The Utes, who have lost their last two games, play undefeated Wyoming tonight in Rice Stadium. Wyoming, led by Outland Trophy candidate Mitch Donahue, ranks second in the Western Athletic Conference in scoring defense and passing defense.
"They are a very sound team with good athletes," says Henson. "They've played together a number of years."
So the Utes face an even tougher task of breaking out of their offensive slump. Some 30,000 fans are expected to show up for tonight's game. The hometown fans, having personally witnessed all of two touchdowns this season, are no doubt growing restless.
"I'm not concerned with what people think," says Henson. "What I'm concerned about is getting the offense going. We've been misfiring the last couple of weeks at every position. We've got to get the whole offense into synch. We had drives that we should have converted into points, but there were breakdowns on big plays. One time it was a receiver, another time it was a lineman, another time the quarterback, and another time the (running) back. It's just missed execution - a fumble, an interception, a missed block - when we could have had a big play."
As Henson sees it, the Utes have not been helped by an unsettled line, which seems to change weekly, either because of injuries or poor performances. This week the Utes will play without guard James McKenna, who is sidelined with a neck injury. He'll be replaced by Russ Dailey, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound sophomore from Salt Lake's Hillcrest High School ("He's been coming on the last couple of weeks," says Henson). Tackle Mike DeHoog is expected to play despite an ankle sprain.
The steadiest performers in the line so far have been tackle Mike Murray and center John Anderson. The rest of the line has performed erratically, says Henson.
In the meantime, the Utes are averaging a mere 75 yards rushing per game. Sophomore halfback Steve Abrams has accounted for 251 of the Utes' 301 rushing yards. Quarterback Mike Richmond has thrown for 779 yards and completed 58 percent of his passes in 2 1/2 games, but he also has thrown five interceptions and just one touchdown pass. Slotbacks Sean Hutson (14 catches) and Greg Hoffman lead the team in receiving.
"We need to get better at each position in the offense," says Henson. "We need to grade out higher at each position. That's where execution comes from. The scoring will take care of itself."
"Our offense has to be accountable - to come to the forefront," says Utah head coach Ron McBride. "If we continue to play well on defense and get what we want out of our offense, we can play with anyone."