Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NCF Nation [Print without images]

Friday, October 28, 2011
Utah still looking for first Pac-12 win

By Ted Miller

The following from Utah coach Kyle Whittingham would be an example of a coach cutting to the chase.

"It's safe to say that was our poorest performance of the year against Cal," Whittingham said to open his weekly news conference. "We didn't do too much on offense, and we reverted back to turning the ball over, which was a big disappointment. I thought we had gotten past that, but it reared its ugly head again. Cal got 17 points directly off those turnovers. We couldn't make first downs, we couldn't run the ball, we couldn't throw the ball. There were no redeeming qualities and we've got to get that fixed."

Kyle Whittingham
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham admits he didn't handle the loss to Utah State last season very well.
That about sums up Utah's 34-10 loss at California, which served as the nadir of the Utes' first foray into the Pac-12. They are now 0-4 in conference play, saddled with an offense that can't score.

Oregon State is coming to town, and it can identify with seemingly hopeless struggles. While coach Mike Riley is a softer touch, Whittingham's assessment would aptly describe the Beavers' 0-4 start.

Yet the Beavers also offer some hope. They've reversed the course of their season, winning two of three and playing better in every area during that process.

"We had a horrible start and we're growing," Riley said. "That's about it right now. We'll see if we can finally win two games in a row this week."

Yet there is a very distinct difference between the teams. Oregon State opted to make a stunning change at quarterback at the beginning of the season, benching returning starter Ryan Katz in favor of redshirt freshman Sean Mannion. Mannion has started to play well, justifying the change, but if he got hurt, Katz would be a more-than-adequate replacement.

The Utes have no such luxury at quarterback. When starter Jordan Wynn went down with a shoulder injury, there wasn't much promise on the depth chart behind him. Jon Hays, a transfer from Nebraska-Omaha, has scrapped and clawed but has often seemed overmatched by opposing defenses that are ganging up against what used to be a solid running game with running back John White and daring Hays to throw downfield.

Anyone for more straight talk from Whittingham? Good.

"The first thing [against Cal] is that we turned the ball over four times, all from the quarterback position," he said. "That's a big downer."

Yes, but one without an obvious solution.

"The question is how to generate more competition at quarterback," Whittingham said. "Griff Robles and Hays have a walk-on behind them. [True freshman] Tyler Shreve was really the three going into this week. It made more sense to stick with the redshirt plan. We've got to figure out a way to get better."

So, to conclude, said Whittingham: "We feel Hays at quarterback gives us the best chance to win, and we still feel that way. If the practice week dictates otherwise, we'll adjust accordingly."

There are reasons, however, not to automatically write this one into the win column for Oregon State. For one, there is a common opponent: BYU. The Utes whipped their arch-rivals 54-10, while the Cougars beat the Beavers 38-28.

Of course, the asterisk on that one is that Wynn was Utah's quarterback in that game.

The other two elements in Utah's favor are an A-list defensive front that could challenge the Beavers' offensive line, and playing at home. As good as Mannion has been of late, young quarterbacks tend to have ups and downs. If the MUSS gets to him, that could create turnover opportunities and a short field for Hays and company to generate points.

But Riley points to an improved running game as a big reason Mannion has been able to make plays downfield in the passing game.

"The consistency of the run was a big factor and helped everything," he said. "It makes play-calling a lot easier and makes your opportunity, if you want to call something on third and short, it makes it real. Maybe you’ll fake somebody out.”

Utah has a forgiving schedule ahead, and beating the Beavers would give the Utes a fourth victory and leave them needing just two to get to bowl eligibility. But late-season runs are an Oregon State staple.

The Beavers could be on the cusp of one, though the remaining schedule is tough. Or are the Utes ready to -- finally -- notch a historical victory for the program?