No Identity: Utah struggling during 3-game losing streak
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Kyle Whittingham joked with his sports information director near the end of his weekly press conference Monday, saying, “Save me, Liz. Save me.”
The moment of levity followed nearly 20 minutes of the 13-year coach trying to decipher what has happened during a three-game losing streak after a 4-0 start to the season.
“Not where we wanted to be, obviously,” Whittingham said. “We’ve seen a lot of positives this season. We’ve seen a lot of negatives. We’re kind of all over the board.”
Things have fallen apart for Utah and there’s no clear explanation why. Whittingham has taken responsibility and said the coaches need to be better, but production has fallen off across the board. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky and kicker Matt Gay may have been the two most productive players the last three weeks.
The Utes lost consecutive games to No. 20 Stanford and No. 21 USC with starting quarterback Tyler Huntley out due to a right arm injury. The passing game was less efficient and the run game lost the additional explosiveness that the athletic Huntley brought to the field.
Things were expected to get back on track once Huntley returned last week against Arizona State, but the offense managed just 10 points in a 30-10 loss to the Sun Devils and Huntley threw four interceptions. Two of the picks were jumped routes, one came off a drop and the other was an overthrow that may have been a bad route.
Whittingham said the Utes have no offensive identity.
“It’s very concerning,” Whittingham said. “In the past, even though our numbers hadn’t been great, we’ve been a physical, run-the-ball-down-your-throat-with-some-play-action football team.
“Right now, we’re still searching for who we are. Seven games in, you say how can that be? I’m asking the same question. We have to figure out what we do best and hitch our wagon to that.”
The new fast-paced, spread offense has slowed since a hot start that had Huntley and receiver Darren Carrington ranked among the best in the country at their respective positions. The running game has also been inconsistent.
Whittingham wanted more from the running backs early, but Huntley’s dual-threat ability supplemented that and he led the team in rushing after three games. The running game took a step back when Huntley was injured, but starting running back Zack Moss had a career-high 141 yards against USC. Moss, however, only got 12 carries against Arizona State. Whittingham said the sophomore should have gotten more touches.
On top of those inconsistencies, Utah has had issues on third down all season and its 33.33 conversion percentage is tied for No. 105 in the nation.
Huntley, who wasn’t 100 percent healthy, said Saturday’s loss was as frustrated as he’s ever been.
“It’s all of us,” Huntley said. “One person makes a mistake and it messes up the whole thing. If it happens play after play, it adds up. Every little mistake adds up. All of us just need to put our pride aside and come together.”
The offensive side of the ball has traditionally been where Utah struggles, but the Utes have the No. 6 scoring defense (26.3 points per game) in Pac-12 play. That’s not the type of output expected from a team with the goal of winning the Pac-12 South. A division title is now highly unlikely with three league losses.
Consistency seems to have left the defense. Utah gave up a season-high 205 rushing yards to Arizona State and a season-high 358 passing yards to USC. The moniker “Sack Lake City” no longer applies as their 12 sacks have them tied for No. 83 in the country.
Defensive end Filipo Mokofisi said teams have done a good job protecting, but both scheme and effort need to improve.
“Coming off three losses, you can get deflated, down on yourselves,” Mokofisi said. “It’s really up to the leaders to keep people up. This past game, the energy wasn’t there. We were kind of just down.”
This is the first three-game losing streak for Utah since 2013, but the players seemed upbeat Monday, Huntley especially. The goal of winning the first Pac-12 title in program history is all but officially gone, but there’s time to grow for a young roster with a new offense.
“They’ve got to be resilient,” Whittingham. “When you drop a football game or when you win a football game, you’ve got to come back with the same resolve and work habits. They understand that. ... It’s a pretty mature football team.”