Bleeding Red: Utes have got to get better on third downs

What a difference a week can make
The Pac-12 is not a piece of cake
First flying high and then just as low
You drive for show, but must putt for dough

COMMENTARY –– Utah’s win against Stanford two weeks ago was the functional equivalent of an impressive drive from the black tees in golf. However, putting the ball in play is only the beginning, and the golfer still has to putt the ball into the hole. Many a round of golf is won and loss based on putting. Last Saturday against Arizona (ironically, located in the midst of a golf mecca), Utah just couldn’t putt the ball into the hole.

After playing so well against No. 5-ranked, undefeated Stanford just the week before, how could Utah cough up a game to Arizona for Arizona’s first conference win in three tries?

Brian Johnson was the last Utah quarterback to start and end the season as the starter, and that was back in 2008. Consistent with recent years, Ute fans watched their starting quarterback go down yet again as Travis Wilson left the game for good near the end of the first half. It remains to be seen how seriously Wilson is injured and when he might return.

This week may be a critical juncture as to who plays quarterback for Utah the remainder of the year. It won’t be known for a day or two whether Wilson can play this week or if he will sit out temporarily. If he’s out just temporarily, then Adam Shulz will be the quarterback. However, if Wilson is lost for the season, Connor Manning will be given the opportunity to compete against Shulz in practice this week for the starting job, notwithstanding Manning’s current redshirt status.

The loss of Wilson was not necessarily the determining factor in the loss to Arizona. Adam Schulz pressed Wilson for the starting job in spring ball and fall camp. While Shulz is not necessarily the running threat that Wilson is, he is more than capable of stepping in for Wilson. In fact, Utah actually outscored Arizona 17-15 with Shulz at the helm.

“I don’t think we handled the first Pac-12 road trip very well,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It reminded me exactly of Arizona State last year and Cal-Berkeley the year before — the same feeling in the locker room, the same lack of passion, lack of energy. “‘Why?’ is the million-dollar question. We didn’t prepare any differently.”

Regardless of why they under-performed or even who is at QB, the Utes continue to be horrific on third downs on both sides of the ball. Utah’s third-down conversion rate against Arizona was less than 28%, with the average third-down distance being more than 7.5 yards. In other words, if Utah doesn’t get it done on first and second down, it rarely gets it done on third down.

On the other side of the ball, the Utes’ opponents are converting more than 41 percent of their third down tries for the season. Even more alarming, Pac-12 Conference opponents are converting more than 47 percent of their third down tries against Utah (with Arizona converting a whopping 60% of its third downs against the Utes).

That’s a deadly combination when your offense can’t convert on third down and your defense can’t keep the opponent from converting their third down tries.

However, there is one very telling stat that has held true in all seven of Utah’s games thus far — the Utes are 0-3 when they throw a pick six, and 4-0 when they don’t. When Arizona ran a Wilson interception back for a TD early in the second quarter, I was hoping this game would be the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Instead, the rule held firm and fast, and Utah lost again.

What I like about sports in general, and football in particular, is that in many respects they can be a metaphor for life.

The Arizona game was the first time Utah had played a game outside of the state of Utah all season long. Combine that with the fact that Utah had a very emotionally-taxing win against Stanford at home the week before and perhaps Utah had a very mortal emotional and physical letdown in its first road game after the big win.

Who among us hasn’t come up short at some point in our lives, especially when taking a deep breath after a major victory of our own?

Football can be a game of inches and one or two plays can make the difference in the ultimate outcome of the game.

In life, it is difficult to be on your game all of the time. Sometimes, one or two decisions, or missteps, can make a significant difference in the relative successes we seek in our own individual lives.

Okay, enough metaphysical meandering, let’s get back to football.

Utah is currently sitting at 4-3 with five games left to play. Do you want play the half-empty or half-full game? Of the remaining opponents, only one has lost more games than Utah — Colorado. On the other hand, of the remaining opponents, only two have won more games than Utah — Oregon and Arizona State.

I firmly believe the Utes are going to be bowl eligible. The question remains, though, where will Utah finish and for which bowl will it qualify?

Next up is a Saturday afternoon game at the Coliseum against USC. The Trojans currently sport a 4-3 record with a single conference win — identical to Utah. Both teams are coming off of road losses, with Notre Dame beating USC last week 14-10.

The Trojans have been making a living off of their defense (sound familiar?). However, Trojan running back Tre Madden is averaging more than 100 yards rushing per game and wide receiver Marqise Lee is a potent weapon as well.

Utah has not beaten USC in the Coliseum since 1916. Although this game is far from a gimme, I expect Coach Kyle Whittingham to have the Utes’ heads screwed back on straight by Saturday and ready to play. Utah hasn’t lost consecutive games yet this season, and they won’t this Saturday. Regardless of who quarterbacks Utah’s offense, Utah is going to prove the Las Vegas oddsmakers wrong once again by beating USC.


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

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