LOS ANGELES – Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is no stranger to his team’s main shortcoming. It’s the same issue that has derailed his Utes every year since joining the Pac-12 in 2011: putting up points.
Utah has ranked in the bottom half of the league in scoring offense every season since becoming a Pac-12 member. Still, the Utes have remained competitive, splitting the South Division title last year with USC (which won the tiebreaker), on the strength of their defense and special-teams play.
But there’s only so far that can carry Utah if it hopes to take the next step and become a true power in the league. At some point, Utah’s offense has to catch up with its defense. More specifically, Utah must address what Whittingham calls “our nemesis,” which is the lack of an effective passing game.
“We’re fine running the football, we always have been,” Whittingham told ESPN.com during last week’s Pac-12 media days. “But we have to throw it better and that’s a collaborative effort with the whole offense. That’s just not the quarterback. That’s the running back and receivers and tight ends and offensive line and the play calling. We have to do a better job in all of those areas.”
To be fair, Utah has improved its scoring almost every season since joining the Pac-12. In 2011, its first in the league, the Utes averaged 25 points per game. Last year they averaged 30.6. The problem is that scoring in the league is up almost across the board. So while Utah is making progress, it’s not happening fast enough to keep pace with the rest of the conference.
“I think in this day and age if you can score 34 points per game plus, then you should have a great chance to win every week,” Whittingham said. “We pride ourselves on being a defensive football team and very sound in the kicking game, and that plays into that and probably will hold. We’ve done a pretty good job in defensive points allowed per game. I don’t know if there’s any magic number that we have to attain offensively. But generally speaking, right around 34 points per game is where I think you need to be to win a championship.”
To get there, the Utes will rely on a new quarterback, running back and a fairly unknown cast of receivers. Whittingham reiterated that the quarterback competition between Troy Williams (a JC transfer by way of Washington), Brandon Cox (a veteran backup) and Tyler Huntley (an early enrollee true freshman) is wide open heading into spring.
“I think our offensive identity hasn’t really changed the last few years,” said tackle J.J. Dielman. “We’re those tough guys, blue collar, and we like to run the ball. We’ll pass when we have to. And I know that’s a vital part of playing offense in this league. But I’m a run-first guy and I think the rest of our O-line is too.”
They’ll lean on Joe Williams at running back (477 yards, three touchdowns in 2015) to replaces Devontae Booker. But Whittingham added that the offense must evolve to account for the new faces.
“[Booker] is gone. He was our identity,” Whittingham said. “He was the guy that we [gave] the ball to 30 times a game. We’ve got Joe Williams at running back, who we really like, but he’s not a 30-carry-a-game back, so we’ve got to be more balanced and we’ve got to be able to throw the football and throw it down the field.”
The Utes last season leaned heavily on the defense, which led the Pac-12 with 34 turnovers. Those extra opportunities – combined with some outstanding special-teams play – helped the Utes mask their offensive deficiencies. But if Utah wants to contend for a title, Whittingham said that must be addressed.
“Being able to throw the ball with the efficiency, that’s what we need to,” he said. “That’s what kept us from winning the championship last year was not throwing the ball nearly effectively enough. That’s got to change.”