After the Utah Utes essentially went into hibernation for the past three games counting the win over Air Force, it’s time for the bear in the Utes to come out; else they may be looking at a New Mexico Bowl appearance.
Having San Diego State, a team that nearly upset TCU, next on the schedule isn’t exactly what anybody would call a bounce back game, but it does give Utah an opportunity to right the ship.
“Without a doubt they’re the most improved team in the Mountain West Conference. They’re playing good football,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said.
All praise aside, the Utes (8-2) must find offense from somewhere to be succesful on Saturday. 38 points in three games–of which 28 came from the Air Force win–is not impressive.
Not only that, no Utah unit is playing well enough to earn any real praise from its coach, and that’s a frightening thought considering the Aztecs (7-3) have scored 112 points in the past three.
It equals out to major trouble for a Ute team that is not only struggling, it’s reeling after having their BCS dreams stamped on, trampled and obliterated at the hands of better football teams.
“We need to start doing the things we did in the first eight games that made us successful…executing on offense, playing great special teams and stingy defense, so we’ve got our work cut out for us,“ Whittingham said.
On paper, San Diego State represents more of the same; a sizzling freshman running back in Ronnie Hillman–also the conference‘s leading rusher, a solid quarterback in Ryan Lindley and fleet-footed NFL prospects at wide receiver.
So to hear that the Utah coaching staff is going with sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn, whose struggles are well documented, doesn’t invoke fear in anyone.
Nonetheless, Whittingham told assembled media this week he’s toeing the company line.
“Right now Jordan is still our quarterback, and he’s played very well in Qualcomm Stadium, both in high school and last year in the [Poinsettia] bowl game,” Whittingham said.
Passing is not the only thing the Utes have been struggling with; the running game was, in a word, horrible against TCU and Notre Dame. What it needs is a repeat performance of the Air Force game, in which Ute backs Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide nearly had 100 yards apiece.
If Utah were smart they would take a page out of BYU’s playbook and control the clock with Asiata and Wide, thus limiting San Diego State’s powerful offense in terms of plays and time of possession.
But let’s not just blame the running backs; receivers have also struggled, not just through the last two games but also against the Falcons. DeVonte Christopher has been impressive in his first season at the position since switching from quarterback, so long as you don’t count his last three games. Jereme Brooks has had an awful year, however; the senior has had nowhere near the production he had in 2009.
“We’ve got to do a better job of running routes [as receivers], we’re not violent enough in the run game, and we’ve got to do a better job opening up holes,” Whittingham said.
Defensively, the Aztecs have a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy in the 3-4 scheme former New Mexico coach Rocky Long has implemented on Montezuma Mesa since coming over as defensive coordinator.
In what has become a mantra for Utah, the last three games have simply washed away any hopes of a dream season and its offense must find a way to score.
What was once found–eight straight wins–is now lost, to coin and completely flip an old saying.
For the Utes to have any chance of winning, it also comes down to how well the defense limits San Diego State’s run game. Even Utah’s defense–which had been among the top teams in the nation allowing just over 10 points per game–has surrendered 75 points in just two.
A similar defensive meltdown on Saturday will mean the Utes are headed for their third loss of the season, with the Holy War against BYU on the horizon. A win, however, may change the Utes’ fortunes and earn them a trip to some place warmer than Albuquerque.
Get San Diego State’s point of view on the big game with San Diego Sports Examiner Gerald Nicdao, only on foamcage.com. And don’t forget to watch The Mountain Sports Report on The Mtn, where “the West is won.” Check local listings for dates and times.