SALT LAKE CITY — After coming up short in both of their Pac-12 games this season, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said the Utes are “knocking at the door” when it comes to securing a signature win. They opened Pac-12 play with a 51-48 overtime loss to Oregon State and then dropped a 34-27 decision to 12th-ranked UCLA last Thursday.
“We've got to make a few more plays — that's the short version. When you're close like that, it usually comes down to a play or two or three plays that's the difference, which has been the case in those two games,” Whittingham said. “The opponents have made those plays, and we haven't. We've got to find a way to make those plays.”
The quicker, the better with fifth-ranked Stanford coming to town Saturday. Utah hasn’t beaten a Top 10 team at home since 1973 and needs a win to avoid a third consecutive 0-3 start in Pac-12 competition.
A glaring shortfall the Utes hope to cinch up against the Cardinal are third-down conversions. They’re just 3 of 27 over the past two games, after going 18 for 40 overall in their first three outings of the season.
Whittingham acknowledged it’s a problem that the coaching staff is paying close attention to and working to rectify. Converting on just 3 of 27 situations, he added, is awful.
“It's one of our primary issues right now,” Whittingham said. “The biggest issue is there has been too many third-and-longs in those third downs, which means we've got to be better on first and second down at getting ourselves in third-and-manageable instead of third-and-9-plus.”
That’s the first step, he noted, and a huge focal point in practice.
Senior center Vyncent Jones said the Utes were going to come to work with a head of steam this week and really get after it. They’re determined to hold their own at home, posting a 4-7 mark against Pac-12 opponents since joining the conference in 2011.
“We really want to get a signature win for our fans. They’re great,” said Jones, who mentioned that players want to win for groups like the MUSS, season-ticket holders, and fans in the north end zone who provide support at home. “It’s frustrating because we are right there, too. It’s like we’re one or two plays away, it seems, every game. It’s just frustrating.”
Jones added that it’s not the Mountain West anymore and the Utes have to come each week with no excuses and be ready to go.
“It’s all focused on Stanford right now. You can’t go play someone else until you’ve played these guys,” he said. “So we’ve got to focus on winning this game and that’s all that matters.”
Playing a team as highly touted as Stanford, Whittingham noted, is an added variable.
“It's a great opportunity. Anytime you have a team with that lofty of a ranking, then obviously it presents an opportunity for you and a big challenge at the same time,” he said. “But our fans are going to be getting used to that in the Pac-12. That's just how it is, and we're excited about the chance to line up against a quality team like Stanford on Saturday — and our guys will be ready."