Last year, Utah started the year 6-0 and was ranked third in the country. Unfortunately for the Utes, they lost three of their next five games – at USC, at Arizona and against UCLA – to finish 10-3.
Utah had one of the best defenses in America last season and one of the best running backs in the country in Devontae Booker. In the end, though, that wasn’t enough. The Utes averaged just 180 passing yards per game – second-worst in the Pac-12 – and were unable to participate in the Pac-12 Championship, ultimately losing a tie-breaker to the Trojans.
Is it safe to say that the Utes’ passing game – or lack thereof – prevented them from playing for league and national championships?
“Without a doubt,” Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “That was our Achilles heel. We know that, everybody knows that, that’s no secret – that’s got to improve. That really, in our estimation, is what kept us from winning a championship is our in ability to generate an effective enough throw game. That’s been a point of emphasis ever since the season ended. We’ve made that priority 1. If we want to compete for that championship this fall like we talk about, that’s got to happen as far as improving production in the throw game.”
Troy Williams, Tyler Huntley and Brandon Cox are all competing for the starting-quarterback job this season, but can the passing game improve that drastically in just one year? And how does that happen? Is it personnel? Scheme? Play-calling?
“I think it’s all of the above,” Whittingham said. “It’s getting more production out of our receiving corps. We had a lot of guys last year that were freshmen – true freshmen or redshirt freshmen – that were playing for us. We got to get better with our accuracy throwing the football, we’ve got to get better protecting the quarterback, we’ve got to be better play-callers – the blame is on everybody, and it’s on me ultimately. I’m ultimately where the buck stops, and it’s got to be improvement in all areas. Like I said, we’ve been working all year long to make that happen.”
Utah’s passing woes were even more problematic given the aerial nature of the Pac 12. If almost every team you’re playing can sling it – and you can’t – that puts you at a big disadvantage.
“I think so,” Whittingham said. “I think you got to be able to throw the ball and loosen defenses up. We’re always a good run team. We’ve been running the football effectively for a lot of years, but if you can be a threat in the throwing game and get the ball down the field and have a vertical element to your passing game and loosen up the defense a little bit, that only enhances your ability to run the ball. So it all ties together and goes hand in hand. We faced a lot of seven-, eight-, nine-man fronts the last two years, but we had Devontae Booker and when you’re facing those kind of fronts, you can still pound the ball because of his special ability.”