Bleeding Red: Utes finally fulfilling potential

(sung to the tune of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”)
It’s beginning to look a lot like last year
For the Utah Utes
Losing to four straight conference foes
Then going on a roll
To qualify once again for a bowl

COMMENTARY – For the second straight season, Utah opened up 0-4 in the Pac-12 only to go on a late season run. The Utes only have two Pac-12 wins, but both of those games have been blowouts in the past two weeks. This team has finally figured it out on both sides of the ball, as well as special teams.

Speaking of special teams, I would be remiss if I did not give huge props to Reggie Dunn. Dunn opened up the second half against Washington State last Saturday with another 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown (unlike the NFL, the NCAA does not track how deep in the end zone the return started). That now makes three 100-yard returns for a score in two games, and the fourth of Dunn’s career.

Dunn now owns three NCAA records outright:
* 100-yard returns in a game, with two.
* 100-yard returns in a career, with four.
* Kick return average in a game, with a 74-yard average on three returns against Cal.

It would have been interesting to see what Dunn could have done with another return in the Washington State game as Washington State only kicked off once during the entire game (giving Dunn a 100-yard return average—apparently the NCAA won’t give you the record for average return yards in a game based on a single return).

Of course, Dunn did not do it all by himself. Admittedly, in the Cal game Dunn did a lot of juking and cutting back and forth in order to evade would-be tacklers as he galloped from one side of the field to the other – twice. However, against Washington State the return was so well blocked that Dunn pretty much ran straight up the field without anyone getting a clear shot at him. As bad as the special teams were at the beginning of the season, including Dunn, who was having a tough time just catching the ball, the special teams are really getting the job done now.

All this leads into the big question: Why has it been taking so long for the Utes to get on track each season? Injuries have had an impact. Brian Blechen’s early season suspension this year also had an impact. However, virtually all teams experience injuries and other player issues to some extent or another and good teams have the depth and ability to adapt when injuries occur or players are otherwise unavailable to play.

Coaching has a significant impact as well. While contemplating how much of an impact Brian Johnson’s lack of experience as offensive coordinator may have had on the early season struggles of the Utes offense, I remembered that veteran Norm Chow was at the helm last year when the Utes also struggled early in the season. Notwithstanding his many, many years of experience, the fact remains that Norm Chow was new to the Utah program last year, which may explain in part the early season struggles while the coaches and players all tried to get on the same page. There is something to be said for continuity—just ask former Ute Alex Smith, who dealt with a revolving door of head coaches and offensive coordinators year after year after year in the NFL. The good news is that it looks like there will be continuity going forward.

Travis Wilson is Utah’s third starting quarterback this year. Coincidentally, in the blowout win over the Cougars from up north, Utah used three different quarterbacks in that game alone – Wilson, John Hays and Adam Schulz. In fact, Schulz’s 44-yard pass to Sean Fitzgerald in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown is Utah’s longest pass play this season.

Speaking of quarterback play, Wilson attempted yet another quarterback sneak in the red zone against Washington State that failed miserably. Please, Brian Johnson, no more – you’re killing me (and you might also get your quarterback killed).

The defense also deserves props for its inspired play last week. Utah held Washington State to minus-4 rushing yards, the fifth-fewest yards ever gained by a Ute opponent. The Utah defense also had a season-high six sacks against Washington State, tying for the sixth-best single-game sack total in school history. It is a crying shame that Utah allowed Washington State to score as time expired to spoil the shutout.

Next up for the Utes is a road game against the Washington Huskies. Washington is 5-4 with Pac-12 wins over Stanford, Oregon State and California. With both Utah’s and Washington’s offenses ranking near the bottom of the Pac-12, defensive play will be the key to the game. The Huskies defense is middle of the Pac-12, while Utah’s defense is closer to the top, ranking third in most defensive categories. Of particular note, Washington’s defense is ranked 11th in the Pac-12 against the run, giving up an average of 192.2 yards per game. Advantage Utah.

Look for Utah to win its third straight game this week by literally running over the Huskies, with the Utes defense or special teams putting at least one score on the board.

~

Dwayne Vance is a sports commentator. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2012, all rights reserved.

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