Roller coasters first climb, and then come screaming down
At times Ute fans have smiled, at others worn a frown
Well come this Thursday night, the Trojans are in town
Please Utes give me a reason to make happy sounds
COMMENTARY — I love watching Swoop, Utah’s mascot, lead the MUSS in the roller coaster, an activity in which the student section pretends it is riding a roller coaster and the students scream as they lean from side to side, forward and back. This season, the roller coaster has taken on new meaning as a metaphor for the fortunes of the football team from week to week.
At first, the team climbed up with a glorified scrimmage against Northern Colorado (heaven forbid we should ever lose such a game, knock on wood), before experiencing a reality check against Utah State. The Utes then climbed back to the top of the track with an emotional win over BYU, only to come crashing back to earth with big loss to Arizona State. Will the roller coaster ride continue? Will the team level out with some consistency and, if so, at what level? This is shaping up to be the type of season that separates the wheat from the tares, the true fans from the bandwagon riders.
One of the most consistent indicators has been the production of John White IV. Dating back to last season, the Utes are 9-0 when he rushes for at least 100 yards. Thus far this year, that has only happened once, when White racked up 119 yards against powerhouse Northern Colorado, although he narrowly missed with 96 yards in the overtime loss to Utah State. It’s not all on White though, because the offensive line has been a revolving door all season long. Currently, Utah’s rushing attack comes in at number 11 in the Pac-12 and 110 in the nation. Starting two freshman against USC — Siaosi Aiono at right guard and Jeremiah Poutasi at right tackle — does not necessarily bode well for a strong running game this week, either.
If the Utes are going to beat USC, Utah is going to have to do it through the air. Jon Hays has been better than expected. He may not be a pedigreed show dog like the Trojans Matt Barkley, but sometimes all you need is a junkyard dog to get the job done. The future may belong to Travis Wilson, but Hayes can get it done for now. I say the future “may” belong to Wilson because Utah recruit Connor Manning is putting on quite a show for El Torro in California his senior year. The Utes have a talented corps of receivers and Brian Johnson needs to give Hays a chance to prove he can do the job. If Hays is only going to be a game manager and hand off the ball, then just let Wilson play and prepare for the future. Otherwise, turn Hays loose.
Utah’s defense also needs to step it up against Southern Cal. For a defensive unit that was expected to be at the top of the Pac-12, if not the nation, these guys have been all over the map thus far. For example, the Utes defense ranks third in the Pac-12 in passing defense, but ranks ninth in pass efficiency defense. Plus, the Utah defense ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense, but eighth in scoring defense. With a rookie offensive coordinator, an inexperienced offensive line and the back-up quarterback elevated to starter, the defense has to step up and take some pressure off of the offense.
The Pac-12 has proven very difficult to predict this year. Who could have predicted that Stanford would beat USC, then lose to Washington. And Oregon State has come out of nowhere to make quite a splash. The odds-makers in Las Vegas don’t give Utah much of a chance on Thursday night. I have more faith than that in my Utes. The roller coaster should be back on the rise this week. I predict that Dennis Green will be proud of the Utes, because they aren’t about to crown USC, but rather I expect a good old-fashioned dogfight.
Dwayne Vance is a sports commentator and opinions expressed are his and not necessarily those of St. George News.
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