Gary Doran

Pac-12 Preview Utah: Stuck in the Pacific

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In the three years before joining the PAC-12 Conference, the Utah Utes were 21-3 in the friendly waters of the Mountain West Conference with a winning percentage of 87.5.  In the three years since joining the stronger currents of the vast and deep PAC-12, Utah mustered wins in just 9 of 27 conference games, a winning percentage that sits at 33.3.   Is Utah Football up a creek without a paddle?  It doesn’t appear to be that bad, but Utah did leave the “creek” of the Mountain West Conference for the open seas of the Pacific, only to find out that their paddles weren’t big enough.

Going into the 2014 season, Utah and its fans seem to realize that they have drifted a long ways from the shore, and with this year’s very tough schedule (many sporting outlets rate the 2014 schedule as one of the toughest in the country), there appears to be some pretty strong headwinds and some very rough seas for the forecast ahead.

How did the Utes get so far adrift?

Some will point to the poor play of the Utes two quarterbacks in the second half of last year. Travis Wilson and his backup Adam Schultz were down right awful down the stretch.  This did far to buck the trend of the programs production at the position in general which has been mediocre at best since 2009.

Other blame bad luck that included Wilson first hurting his hand followed by a concussion in the game against Arizona State which ultimately put him out for the season.  Wilson’s ’13 maladies along with Jordan Wynn’s career-ending injury a year prior have given the right to Utes fans having a bit of a complex.

However, there seems to be a more subtle change in the Pacific currents happening in the one area the Utes have always excelled, on defense.  The table below shows Utah’s yearly defensive conference ranking since joining the with Colorado after the 2011 season.  Notice that Utah’s rankings in many of the defensive categories have been declining somewhat since they joined the league. Is this a slow sinking of their ship?

Defense has always been a hallmark of a Kyle Whittingham coached team, yet last year’s rankings shows the strength of the team dipping towards the middle of the conference. The slipping defense only seems to magnify the Ute’s wayward drift away from the shoreline into the vast and deep Pacific.

Pac-12 Season and Record2011 (4-5)2012 (3-6)2013 (2-7)
Scoring Defense1st8th8th
Total Defense3rd6th5th
Rushing Defense3rd2nd2nd
Passing Defense6th8th8th
Passing Defense Efficiency3rd7th9th
Interceptions Made1st11th12th
Sacks Made5th7th (tie)3rd (tie)
1st Downs Allowed4th5th2nd
3th Down Conversions Allowed5th8th3rd
Red Zone Defense2nd7th9th
Utah Statistical Analysis provided by Gary Doran

Make no mistake, the Utah defense is still a tough bunch, but the numbers seem to indicate that they just weren’t as stout as in years past.  Also, turning the ball over as often as the two quaterbacks did last year puts a lot of pressure on a defense, and may account for a part of the slippage.   One defensive area that has been unchanged is the consistently strong Utah run defense.

One has to wonder if many of the spread passing offenses in the conference have been able to somewhat go around their tough run defense, thus reducing a bit that aspect of the defense’s overall effectiveness.  The defense also didn’t do themselves any favors by not getting many takeaways last year (Utah was tied for last in the conference with a paltry two interceptions).

It also looks like the wind goes out of the defense’s sails in the fourth quarter.  During that quarter, the Utes defense gave up the most touchdowns (10), along with the highest yards per play for the game (6.2 per play).  It was also the quarter with the largest point differential at negative 25, and the quarter where the Ute offense turned the ball over only five times (compared to 24 for all four quarters).

The quarterback position needs to be more seaworthy

The trials and tribulations of the Utah quarterback position since entering the conference has been well documented nationally.  The combination last year of Travis Wilson and Adam Schultz threw only 15 TD passes and a conference leading 21 interceptions. In fact, the next closest team, Washington State, threw 238 more passes during the year, and still had four fewer interceptions.

During the offseason, Kyle Whittingham brought in several quarterback candidates in case Travis Wilson could not continue his football career because of his pre-existing brain condition, and in hopes of elevating the talent at the position. Interestingly enough, even with all the competition and Wilson being fully cleared in the summer, Whittingham has stuck by the junior quarterback.  Utah fans are hoping that the Travis Wilson of 2014 will set a better navigational course than the Travis Wilson of 2013.

2013 Utah QuarterbacksATTCOMPCOMP %YDSTDINTYDS/ATTATT/INTATT/TDCOMP 20+ YDS
T. Wilson1557850.39889166.49.717.211
A. Schultz1497248.3982656.629.824.810
COMBINED30415049.30%197015216.514.520.321
Utah Statistical Analysis provided by Gary Doran

In 2013, Travis Wilson threw an interception once every 9.7 passes.  At the same time, he completed a pass for 20 yards or more only once every 14.5 passes.  The 2014, Travis Wilson needs to change the compass and have those two figures go in opposite directions.  Maybe Dave Christensen (the newest of the seven offensive coordinators hired over the past sevent years) will help that process.  The hope in Salt Lake City is that Christensen can utilize the successful experience he gained as an a successful coordinator in stops with both Toledo and Missouri, and bring that to 2014 and beyond.  The “beyond” part being the ultimate goal in that statement.

One of the weapons that is expected to help turn around the quarterback play is the return of senior wide receiver Dres Anderson. He was eighth overall in receiving yards per game in the conference last year. Anderson caught eight of the 21 completions of 20 yards or more for the Utes last year. The success of Utah football this coming year will depend on there being more than only 21 plays of 20+ yards.  (Last year, that was one every 31+ plays).

Is help on the way for 2014 and beyond? 

Assessing recruiting is dubious at best, but Rivals and Scout do have a teams of full-time experts that spend a lots of time and effort ranking recruits nationally.  In the last five years, here are the annual ranking of the recruits that Utah has brought into their program to right their ship.

Do the rankings signal help in getting the program back to shore?  It sure doesn’t appear to be so; falling from 34th to 69th ranking in the quality of the incoming recruits sure does not seem like a good way get competitive again in the rough and tumble waters of the PAC-12 Conference.

YearRivals.com RankingScout.com Ranking
201032nd34th
201137th39th
201228th33rd
201344th53rd
201467th69th
Utah Statistical Analysis provided by Gary Doran

Two Final Utah Tidbits:

  • Utah only played in only one conference game last year in which it got more turnovers than it gave away, their upset of Stanford.
  • Kyle Whittingham prides himself on his teams lack of penalties.  However, in the last three years, Utah has gone from  the second least amount of penalties in conference to fifth then seventh during the last two seasons.  Not a good trend, and one wonders if there a Dennis Erickson influence going on here?

About Gary Doran

Gary Doran

Gary graduated from ASU many years ago. After careers working in banking, finance and the financial administration of academic research funding, he is now interested in utilizing his passion for numbers towards two things he thoroughly loves; Arizona State University and college football. He is looking forward to finding the “stories” buried within the numbers on a football stat sheet. He has gone to ASU football games all the way back to the days of Frank Kush and the WAC. He has been married to an amazing ASU graduate for almost forty years, and they currently live in Ventura, CA. Although this may disqualify him from talking football, he and his wife enjoy the practice of yoga and dancing the Argentine Tango. Ole!

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