It happened again. Utah pulled a 2013 ASU/2014 Wazzu game, doing everything in their power not to lose instead of playing to win. They played with a level of conservatism generally reserved for a Tea Party rally.
Despite another week of getting big performances out of Devontae Booker, the defense, and the special teams, the magic of the past couple weeks was missing when Automatic Andy Phillips missed a short field goal in overtime, and Arizona State followed it up with a make to hand the Utes a 19-16 loss in Tempe.
It was a hard loss for the team and fans to swallow as the Utes ran the ball time and time again, mixing in highly conservative passing plays, while never testing the Arizona State defense with anything deep or any creativity, and ultimately leading to only 57 yards through the air.... On 22 attempts. The loss of Dres Anderson was apparent and it helped stall the throwing game, but Utah can pass the ball. I know they can. I've seen it. This is a choice, and the wrong one. More on this shortly.
On to the big issue from Saturday night. Utah went conservative again, and it bit them, again.
1st quarter. 2:24 remaining. Utah has the ball on their own 9 yard line. Wilson takes the snap and drops back, but the play is blown dead as Kyle Whittingham has called timeout. Good timeout because the play clock would have expired, but it's a clear pass by the Utes on that call. In a game where ASU has sliced up their D on the two opening drives and has all the momentum, a first down is huge for Utah. They have to pass here. We come back from the timeout and what does Utah do? A handoff to Booker up the middle that goes for 4 yards. Time to punt. Can you make the argument that Utah was trying to give Tom Hackett more room to punt? No. The average punter in college stands back 14 to 15 yards from the long snapper. That would have put Hackett in the middle of the end zone, giving him plenty of space to get the kick off. Did they really think Booker would be able to pickup 16 yards? He had 5 carries for 24 yards to that point in the game. Solid, but he wasn't bulldozing his way for big yardage to that point. A run does NOTHING for this team unless Booker gets all 16 yards. It was time to take a chance and throw it 40 yards down the field. Three step drop so the line doesn't have to block forever and just throw it out there. The chances of the ball being completed? Not great, but better than Booker picking up 16 on the ground. If it's incomplete, Hackett kicks the ball away. If it's picked off, the pass then ends up being equivalent to a punt in terms of field position. This play call was vintage Utah under Whittingham. If you're not going to throw it there, you're not going to throw it at all...and that's the problem. Utah became so one dimensional that they started to look like Navy out there. For 3 quarters and overtime, Dave Christensen and company kept handing the ball to Booker against 7, 8, and even 9 man boxes or having Wilson throw it no more than 5 yards down the field. ASU was able to keep everything in front of them, daring Utah to try to beat them 4 yards at a time.
That was just one instance on a night of frustration and hair-pulling for Utes fans watching the offense on a last night where the Utes forced themselves to run the ball over and over, occasionally opting for a couple of yards in the passing game instead of the necessary yards to keep the chains moving. They didn't want to turn it over. They didn't want to make a mistake. They went with their horse in Booker and refused to take a shot at something more. Utah's offense has become the guy that won't ask the girl out because she might say no. He figures that If he doesn't ask, she can't say no, and therefore there's still a chance. You're rarely going to have a chance to get what you want unless you're willing to take a risk. Deep down, Wilson is the quarterback equivalent of the guy that asks out every girl in the room, and Utah isn't letting him be that guy. He'll win some and he'll lose some, but at least he's taking a shot to make something happen.
Were the receivers getting open last night? No. There was no separation. Was the offensive line able to pass protect? It wasn't terrible, but things weren't at the same level as last week against USC. Wilson wasn't at his best and that hurt, but this isn't all on Wilson and this isn't all on Dave Christensen though. This is on the culture and attitude of constantly trying to avoid mistakes. Play as conservative as possible to make sure that offensively, Utah does not turn the ball over. They're become so paranoid about throwing an interception that the play calling limits what they are willing to do in making every effort not to throw it into the hands of a defender. Playing not to beat the opponent, but instead playing not to lose. I thought we had moved passed this with the wins over UCLA And USC where the Utes out-schemed their opponents, opening things up a bit more in the passing game and play calling. Now this, and back to square one.
The quarterback situation is a mess, and I don't put it on the players. Why not give Kendal Thompson a shot at some point? Just for a play here and a play there. Keep ASU on their toes. Make it situational. It's clear that Whittingham has deemed Wilson the starter the rest of the way and isn't going to deviate from that. It's almost as if they've said 'Travis is the starter. We can't deviate from that again.' That works just fine for opposing team if Utah won't let Travis Wilson be Travis Wilson. If you're not going to let Travis be the gunslinger that deep down he really is, then try a different quarterback. Travis wants to sling it around. Travis can sling it around. We've seen it before. Trying to make him be the type of quarterback that he is not messes with his head. Wilson plays well when he's confident and playing his game, which is a high risk, high reward type of play. Travis Wilson will throw interceptions. That's part of his game, but Utah is treating him like a mother that pins their kid's mittens to their jacket so they don't lose them. At some point, you've got to let the kid be who he is, even if it means taking steps back here and there. Kids will lose their mittens and Travis Wilson will throw interceptions. Travis Wilson will also throw and run for touchdowns if given the opportunity.
Not all is lost though. Kalani Sitake again proved that he's arguably the top defensive coordinator in the country. ASU was able to put up yards, especially on the ground, but they couldn't break the Utah D. Lots of bending. Little breaking. Two easy dropped interceptions could have given the Utes the W, but this loss is not on the defense. Again, they're the reason Utah was so close. Same goes for the special teams. Sure, Andy Phillips shocked the world with his miss(es) in overtime, but Utah isn't in that position without Phillips' earlier kicks, Hackett's punts, and Clay's returns. The defense and special teams can only do so much to overcome the deficiencies of the offense, but they should be commended for another strong performance.
At the end of the day, I think perspective is important here though. Utah is 6-2. They're 3-2 in Pac 12 play with wins over UCLA, Oregon State, and USC. They lost in overtime to the 14th ranked team in the country...on the road. It's hard for a fan base not to live and die with the results week to week, overreacting to both wins and losses, but consider where this team is currently. Did they lose using a game plan and play calling that we've seen far too often out of Kyle Whittingham coached teams since joining the Pac 12? Absolutely, and for that it's fair to criticize the coaching staff. But, after a few days, when the emotion of the loss has subsided, the fan base needs to realize what has been accomplished this season and what they can still accomplish over the remainder of the year. A Pac 12 South title is still a possibility. A bowl game is a near certainty. A matchup with a top 5 team in Oregon is coming up this weekend. Like the players and coaches will do in putting this loss behind us all while appreciating and building upon what has been accomplished already, is a must. This is supposed to be fun. Utah football 2014 has been fun. I hope that despite the loss, that's not forgotten. I also hope this staff doesn't forget who Travis Wilson really is and can be because they're only going to go as far as he takes them.
Conservatism Does Utah In
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