UCLA returns to the Rose Bowl on Saturday to host Utah, a team that — despite struggling since moving to the Pac-12 — has lost to the Bruins by only a touchdown in their last two meetings. The Salt Lake Tribune’s Kyle Goon answered five questions about the Utes.
1. Utah won four Pac-12 games in 2011, three in 2012, then two in 2013. Even if Kyle Whittingham’s job isn’t truly at risk this season, how much of a leash does he have moving forward?
We don’t have a concrete answer except to say that it is fairly tight. Our columnist Gordon Monson wrote about assistant coaches contracts in August, which haven’t been rolled over as they usually are. It seems like the baseline of success is winning six games and going to a bowl, which the Utes haven’t done in two years. If they don’t meet that standard, it seems the athletic department is poised to make at least big changes on the staff.
Whittingham has built up a lot of faith over the years by winning games and helping Utah be in position to make the Pac-12, and a lot of fans would like to see him stay. Still, many are wondering if he’s the guy who can lead the program to success in the Pac-12 era. He needs to show some kind of progress this year, which at this point is three Pac-12 wins, to keep his seat surely out of the flame.
2. After throwing nearly an interception for every touchdown over his first two seasons, Travis Wilson hasn’t been picked off yet. Does he look like a significantly better quarterback, or is he due for another turnover-heavy game? (Also, is he one bad hit away from potentially risking his career again?)
Two weeks ago, I would’ve said Travis Wilson is significantly better. The two games since have clouded the signs of progress. It definitely is a huge positive that he hasn’t thrown a pick, which is a reason Utah is 3-1 and looked dominating in all of its wins. Early in the season, he was patient, efficient in his throws, and appeared to be on the same page as his receivers. But since starting the season 24 of 38 for 446 yards and six touchdowns, he’s thrown 32 of 58 for 337 yards and one touchdown. Against Washington State, he seemed to be forcing some throws and simply off target on others — and drops by his receivers didn’t help. If he plays like he did last weekend against UCLA, someone is bound to make a play off a tipped pass or a poorly targeted throw. But when he’s healthy and patient, we’ve seen he’s capable of doing very good things.
Side note: He also needs to stop taking as many hits. Unlike many running quarterbacks, Wilson isn’t afraid to put his shoulder on a guy, or leap for a first down. This led to this really ugly hit at Michigan, which he was lucky to get up from. Utah fans are basically shouting at their TV screens for him to slide more.
3. Devontae Booker broke out against Washington State with 178 yards on 24 carries. Why did it take him this long to officially beat out Bubba Poole as the featured back?
When it comes to running the ball, it’s not a real competition. Sometimes the eye test tells you all you need to know: Booker is a violent runner, he hits holes hard, and he eats up yards even as he’s being tackled. His explosion into the second level makes him a tough guy for defenses to contend with. The word everyone uses to describe his style is “natural.”
I think where he ceded some ground to Poole was in the other elements of the game: pass protection, receiving out of the backfield, and also a little camp issue with fumbles. Poole was a trusted entity, and he’s a well-rounded back. But in the end, coaches couldn’t ignore that Booker always seems to gain ground with every snap, and Poole can be a little more timid in his cuts — he seems to leave yards out there on some plays. Booker broke off a 76-yard TD run early against Wazzu, and it was a no-brainer who the better playmaker was.
4. Utah’s defensive front was already tied for eighth in the country last year with 39 sacks, but is currently at an even scarier pace with 18 through four games. What’s made the unit tick this season, especially compared to 2013?
I would point to two defensive ends who have stepped up this season: Hunter Dimick and Jason Fanaika. Last year, a lot of Dimick’s third-down snaps were taken over by Trevor Reilly — one of the program’s greatest pass rushers ever — when he moved from linebacker to defensive end. Dimick doesn’t have the greatest leverage or reach, but he’s powerful and quick. Then there’s Fanaika, a Utah State transfer, who is versatile and athletic, and had a great game against Washington State.
Having those two on either end has helped the Utes freelance with Nate Orchard, their best overall pass rusher and senior leader, as an outside linebacker and passing down blitzer. Also, having Eric Rowe as a safety-turned-corner helps on a handful of plays per game, as he can pressure the quarterback. It was a big question this year how the Utes would replace Reilly and compensate for an injury to last year’s leading sack guy linebacker Jacoby Hale, but they’ve acquitted themselves well of that concern.
5. How important have special teams been? If Kaelin Clay, Tom Hackett and Andy Phillips were replaced with a conference-average returner, punter and kicker, what is Utah’s record (and outlook) this season?
Oof, hard to measure their impact. Clay, obviously, has become the must-watch guy of the season. He had some conditioning issues in camp and appeared headed for an obscure role before taking two to the house against Idaho State. His touchdowns make a huge emotional impact in games: It was Utah’s first score against Michigan, and seemed to boost both the offense and the defense.
Phillips is a pretty reliable kicker, and he’s gotten much better on touchbacks this year. And Hackett has to be watched to be appreciated: Not only do his kicks travel high and far, they take these mysterious bounces that always seem to favor the Utes. He’s punted 22 times this year, and put eight punts inside the 10, and four punts inside the 5 — all while ranking No. 3 nationally in net yardage. Utah is winning a lot of battles with field position and by getting points in that third phase of the game.
Michigan is a great example: The Wolverines didn’t get in the red zone once, which you can attribute to Hackett as well as the defense, and the Utes got 19 points purely out of special teams. Without those three guys, Utah is much worse off, but with them, the Utes could steal a big win or two this year.