SALT LAKE CITY — When Travis Wilson took the field in Utah's 21-14 loss to UCLA Saturday, it marked the first time since 2000 that the Utes employed three starting quarterbacks in the same season.
Back then it was T.D. Croshaw, Darnell Arceneaux and Lance Rice. Now it's Jordan Wynn, Jon Hays and Wilson. The latter gave this year's team the distinction of having a trio of starters when he moved ahead of Hays on the depth chart. Hays, a senior, held the position after Jordan Wynn opted to retire because of a shoulder injury following the Utah State game on Sept. 7.
Utah's offense, though, has struggled throughout Brian Johnson's first season as offensive coordinator. The Utes entered last week's game at the Rose Bowl ranked 114th in total offense (299.4 ypg), 108th in rushing (105 ypg) and 100th in passing (194.4 ypg).
In an effort to spark the offense, Wilson was promoted from spot duty in each game to the starting role. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted that the true freshman has a tremendous upside and has been practicing well.
"We just felt, given the whole situation and weighing all the circumstances, it was time to give him that chance," Whittingham said while noting that the offense must simply improve. "We've got to find a way to be better. We're not good enough offensively and we've got to find a way to be better. We're exploring every avenue to that end."
Whittingham added that the team responds to and rallies around Wilson, who has impressed the coaches with his confidence and poise.
In his starting debut, Wilson completed 23-of-33 passes for 220 yards. He was intercepted once.
Whittingham thought the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Wilson responded well and didn't look like a "deer-in the-headlights" while posting pretty good numbers against a team like UCLA and in a venue like the Rose Bowl.
"I think there's some very positive things that we can take from his performance," Whittingham said.
So much so, in fact, that Wilson will remain Utah's starter. The Utes face No. 8 Oregon State Saturday in Corvallis.
"You don't ever say forever more, but right now he's our guy and we're pleased with his initial performance," Whittingham said. "We don't want him playing on egg shells."
Whittingham expressed confidence that Wilson will continue to improve. Same goes, he continued, for the sputtering offense.
While dismissing any sort of moral victories, Whittingham is seeing progress in terms of competing. Besides the quarterback switches, the Utah offense has contended with some offensive line woes and schematic alterations to more of a spread attack better suited to personnel strengths.
"I think we're closer than a lot of people think we are, Whittingham said.
Wilson agrees the Utes have gotten a little bit better, although he readily notes there's an underlying sense of urgency to get things done.
"We just need to keep on working hard and make sure we stay a balanced team. We've just got to keep on performing," Wilson said. "Our time will come. We've got to start making that a little quicker, though."
Wilson is confident the numbers will improve as he grows more comfortable as the starter. He vows to keep working hard and making sure he stays poised.
"I think we're definitely on the right path," Wilson said. "We have good plays. We have good coaches. We have great talent on offense. We've just got to put it all together."
EXTRA POINTS: The Utes top the country in forced fumbles (13) and fumbles returned for touchdowns (3). … Senior punter Sean Sellwood leads the nation with a 48.4 yards per kick average. … Offensive lineman Vyncent Jones, who has missed the last two games with an injury, is expected to be available this week. The junior is listed as the backup to Tevita Stevens at center. … Phil Steele Publications has named defensive tackle Star Lotulelei a first-team Midseason All-American.
Utes on the air
Utah (2-4, 0-3) at No. 8 Oregon State (5-0, 3-0)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
Reser Stadium, Corvallis, Ore.
TV: ESPN2 Radio: 700AM