With a week off following four straight losses, the Ute coaching staff went on the offensive last week, trying to find an offense.
Coach Ron McBride took a not-so-secret mission to San Jose, Calif., visiting a former San Jose State coach as well as the current Spartan coach in an effort to find some answers for his anemic offense. At home, certain players worked overtime, even coming in on the weekend for extra duty.The San Jose mission along with the extra week of activity, seemed to do the trick Saturday against UTEP as the Utes came up with their highest point total of the year, equalling the sum total of their last four games. The 427 yards was also their best yardage output of the season.
So what was the secret to the new and improved offense? Some thrilling new plays? A few major personnel changes? A magic potion? Perhaps voodoo dolls?
Nothing so exotic. It basically came down to this: No more flipflopping of the offensive line.
"The biggest difference in this game was the offensive line," said McBride.
"We simplified things to put the kids in a better postion to be successful," added offensive coordinator Dan Henson.
McBride said seven minor changes were made in the Utes' offense, including cutting down the number of running plays and the number of pass protection setups. But the change in the offensive line was the one that was most noticeable to the coaches and quarterback Mike Richmond, who didn't suffer any sacks after being hurried into mistakes as in his previous outings.
For the first half the season, the Utes employed a rather complicated system for pass-blocking with players going "strong left" or "slot right," different on every play. With several young players on the Ute squad, plus a brand-new coaching staff, it obviously wasn't working.
So the Utes went back to basics. "We spent the last two weeks on fundamentals," said McBride. "We used to switch around according to strength, but now we just have the linemen stay on one side."
The players agreed that the new plan worked out Saturday. Anthony Hall, a first-year player who had to replace the Utes' most experienced lineman, Mike Murry, who was injured in the first quarter, said, "We worked a lot on it the last two weeks. We came in Saturday and Sunday and Coach McBride took a lot of extra time with us. He said the main priority today is pass protection."
Tackle Mike DeHoog, who has started all season, added, "It made a really big difference. Now we learn the technique of just one side and everyone's not flipping around all the time."
The Utes started Jason Woods at QB again in their never-ending search for a Scott Mitchell replacement. Just like the Fresno State game, Woods was pulled with 10 minutes left in the second quarter for Richmond.
"Early in the game, we were in synch," said McBride. "The plays were there, but Jason was a little off, forcing the ball a little bit.
So in came Richmond, who threw six straight completions and brought the Ute offense alive.
McBride wasn't surprised by the effectiveness of Richmond, (18 of 29, 252 yards, 3 TDs). "Mike came in and did a great job. He got good protection today. When you get good protection, you'll be a much better quarterback."
Before the game, UTEP Coach David Lee had said, "We'll have to stop the run to have a chance to win."
He figured like everyone else that McBride was installing a new running attack to bolster the Utes who ranked 105th in the nation in rushing. The Utes did nearly double their season average with 145 net yards rushing.
But it was just some fine-tuning of the Ute offensive line that made the most difference Saturday.