- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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It seemed like so long ago that a wave of rabid Utah fans descended from the stands of Rice-Eccles Stadium to storm the field and celebrate arguably the greatest regular season win in school history. Utah’s signature victory over Stanford now feels more like a one-week aberration rather than the mark of a team ready to take a significant step forward in the Pac-12.
Since that time Stanford has gone on to beat back-to-back ranked teams and has climbed back into the BCS conversation. Utah has traveled a different path, dropping consecutive road games at Arizona and USC. A hand injury to quarterback Travis Wilson, untimely wide receiver drops and suspect offensive line play have all contributed to a two-game tailspin that has turned whatever sweetness lingered from the Stanford win into a bitter aftertaste.
“We have a great deal of confidence defensively,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “I think the defensive guys are in a good state of mind. Offensively we have to regroup and get back to playing the football we were the first five weeks. We have to get Travis back to playing the way he was the first five weeks and the offensive line has to get back on track.”
Through those first six games when Utah went 4-2, the Utes averaged 37 points and 469.3 yards per game. Wilson was completing 61 of his passes and had 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions (six came in one game).
But the last two weeks have looked a lot more like the 2012 Utah offense that struggled to move the ball in the air and produce points. It hit a season-low last week at USC when the Utes failed to reach the end zone, producing just a field goal in the loss to USC with 201 total yards and four turnovers.
The Utes are on bye this week -- putting an emphasis on health, rest, and of course recruiting. They return home next week to host an Arizona State team that scorched Washington State last night and is ranked in the AP top 25 but not the BCS standings.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do offensively,” Whittingham said. “We’ve had our poorest performance of the season by far and we have to come up with some answers as to what we’re going to do moving forward. That’s right on the top of the list.”
Turnovers, both creating them and eliminating them, continue to be an issue for the Utes, who rank 11th in the league in turnover margin at minus-7. Despite linebacker Trevor Reilly ranking second in the country with three forced fumbles, Utah is last in the conference with just 10 forced turnovers.
“Just got to keep working on it,” Whittingham said. “We work on it every day in practice, we have turnover circuits and things that we do and emphasize in practice on a daily basis. Plus, we've missed out on a bunch of opportunities this year. It's not like we haven't had several opportunities to intercept the football. The ball's been on the ground several times now. We've had the opportunity to recover several fumbles, but we have the opportunity to recover more than what we've gotten. So, we just got to keep working and keep preaching it.”
The Utes are trying to avoid missing the postseason for the second straight year. With four games left, they need to figure out a way to find two wins against conference foes. So far they are 0-3 against the Pac-12 South with two games remaining against the North and two versus the South.
Next week the Utes first need to exorcise some demons from the shellacking they took last year at the hands of the Sun Devils. Then it’s back-to-back road trips to No. 2 Oregon and Washington State before closing the year against Colorado.
The bye week comes at an opportune time to fix some of the problems that have ailed them. And, of course, getting Wilson healthy is a top priority.
“We never use [injuries] as an excuse,” Whittingham said. “If you are out there playing, you have to perform. The reality of it is his hand is pretty banged up. This bye week comes at a good time in that respect. Hopefully we get that thing feeling better. But if we put a guy on the field he’s expected to play to a certain level and we were not able to get that done.
“He’s a competitive kid. He’s got a lot of pride. He takes a lot of pride in what he does. Even though he was very disappointed by the last couple of weeks, I’d say he’s going to be just fine from a mental standpoint and come back and play well against Arizona State."