The Utah Utes situation is twofold. Not only must its defense play its best game Thursday in front of a sold-out crowd and national ESPN audience, its offense must move the ball.
Easier said than done, for a team that has struggled early in games — even when pitted against inferior opposition.
Against Northern Colorado it took the Utes offense almost the entire first half to warm up and get going — before it ran away with a shutout. At Utah State, it was more of the same as the Utes spotted the Aggies 13 points in the first quarter — only to roar back and lose in overtime.
Even against rival BYU the Utes played to a stalemate to halftime — then forged ahead with 17 unanswered points to win the Holy War. And at Arizona State the defense coughed up 31 straight points before the offense even scored in a rout of a loss.
And now, in a twist of cruel fate, the Utes face their toughest opponent, No. 13 USC. Which schedule god wanted to play mind games with the Utes, anyway?
The answer is nobody, and frankly the Utes offense has dug their own hole time and time again, unable to move the football until they absolutely have to.
The problem is, against the better, more physical teams — like Utah State and Arizona State — Utah hasn’t been able to do much of any moving.
Obviously the biggest issue is at quarterback, where new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson has literally had to reintroduce old Spread schemes into the Utes offensive playbook and install a system that better suited Jordan Wynn.
Now that Wynn has retired, the Utes have had to rely on Jon Hays, who to his credit has done about all he can do from a talent and leadership standpoint — sitting behind a makeshift offensive line consisting now of two freshmen on the right side.
“Sam Brenner moved to left tackle, so that’s one guard down. Vyncent Jones and Latu Heimuli will both unavailable this week. The next guy up is Siaosi [Aiono],” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’ll get about 70 snaps this week so he’ll quadruple his output. He’s the next best guy. We are confident in Siaosi. We have a freshman right tackle and a freshman right guard, so they have to step up and be ready to go.”
At running back the Utes are going with the formula of addition by subtraction. They used a semi-healthy John White on a bum ankle — which completely backfired last week at ASU, resulting in two fumbles and 18 total yards.
Whittingham is hopeful White — who has almost 250 yards rushing and one TD this year — will finally get back to his 2011 ways this week in the big game.
“We’re hoping [John White’s fumbles against ASU] was a fluke. That’s my take on it. He’s been a very reliable ball carrier. He doesn’t fumble in games and he doesn’t fumble in practice,” said Whittingham. “We’re going to chalk that [ASU performance] up to one bad night, and hopefully he’ll bounce back and be ready to go this week.”
Under diress and a scorching Arizona sun — it was 100 degrees at kickoff — Hays turned to Kelvin York and all York did was blast ahead and through the Sun Devil defense for 86 yards on fewer carries than White had.
And in so doing the Utes may have found a capable backup to the usually-reliable White.
“We had high hopes for Kelvin York when we recruited him [from junior college]. He had a good spring and we think that he’s going to be a guy who gets better from week-to-week,” said Whittingham. “We need that to happen. He’s a very talented kid and we saw signs of that against Arizona State. If he can pick up this game where he left off that will help us a great deal.
Even so, the Utah offense still did not score a rushing touchdown in Tempe, which brings us to the next item up for bid: can the Utes afford a bad rushing day against the Trojan defense?
There are two issues. One is that opponents simply have not scored against USC in the first half, because to date, the Trojans have allowed a grand total of 13 points. That does not bode well for Utah.
The second is the Utes inability to score rushing touchdowns — only three paydirt trips all season, and two were by backup QB Travis Wilson.
Add to that fact USC’s stinginess to allow touchdowns on the ground, period, having only allowed three in 2012 — and you would think a minimal rushing attack from Utah could take place in the first half of the game.
The good news is that the Trojan run defense is not impenetrable; in fact the Stanford Cardinal rushed for over 200 yards against a front that includes defensive linemen Morgan Breslin, George Uko and Leonard Williams — all of whom will be playing on Sundays and who have 12.5 sacks between them.
So it is possible to run on USC, and John White — and possibly York — will get their chance to shine for the 13-point underdogs.
And so, it brings us to the Utes passing game, another area where the Trojan defense has been somewhat vulnerable, allowing 230 yards per contest.
Jon Hays has been steady but never spectacular in 2012, which was also the scouting report on him last year. The senior transfer from Division II Nebraska-Omaha, who throws for about 155 yards per game — also isn’t turnover prone, throwing just one interception this year.
Against a USC secondary that has eight already, Hays will likely not test his luck with the Trojans and safety T.J. McDonald.
He will probably choose to throw what is more comfortable to him, the short and intermediate routes to his favorite targets, tight end Jake Murphy and wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, to throw off defenders’ scents.
The issue there, however, is that relying on those crossing routes will force the Trojan defense to stack the box and brings us right back to the much-maligned Utah running game.
That’s right; the only chance the Utes may have for success on Thursday comes from an anemic offense that hasn’t proven much — and the same can be said for their defense.
That said, Utah will have two things behind it. One is the crowd, which will probably be almost all decked out in crimson fans and the second is that the Utes know how to play big in big games.
The Utes proved they could stay on the field last year against a USC team on probation, with nothing to play for except pride — fighting, scratching and clawing until the final play.
“Each year is its own separate entity and own set of circumstances, but going down there and having a good showing last year, although we came up short, could be a positive for us,” said Whittingham.
This year, however, the stakes are higher. USC has many NFL-caliber players on its roster — while Utah has a handful. The Trojans are expected to compete for a national championship and a slip-up against Utah would end their already dimmed hopes.
What it all adds up to, is that the Utes offense must play the best it has all season — when few believe it can be done, and when nobody outside of Utah thinks it’s remotely possible.
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