Mid-season grades for the Utes are now out
And as always, the defense has been stout
While the passing game is famine or feast
When running the ball Booker is a beast!
COMMENTARY — Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is a classic song from that decade affectionately known as the Awesome 80’s. Two lines from that song stand out in my mind.
“Turn around, every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by.
Turn around, every now and then I get a little bit restless and I dream of something wild.”
Tell me that those two lines don’t epitomize what Ute fans have been thinking for the first few years of Utah’s foray into the Pac-12. Yes, the undefeated seasons of 2004 and 2008 were truly something special, but does that mean the best years are now in the past never to be replicated again? Knowing what the Utes have accomplished in the past, and seeing sparks of potential at times, what true fan doesn’t get restless and dream of Utah doing something wild once again?
However, it is the first phrase of both lines that most exemplifies the Utes this year — turn around. Utah has turned its program and its season around, and in the process is turning heads around the Pac-12 and nationwide.
Let’s be honest, just a few short months ago most Ute fans (including me) were just hoping that Utah could somehow find six wins on one of the toughest schedules in the nation in order to be bowl eligible. At 5-1 with six games to play, the 19th-ranked Utes have bigger things on their minds than merely becoming bowl eligible. While still a long-shot, it is no longer inconceivable to think that Utah might somehow find its way into the Pac-12 Championship Game.
So what has changed the past few months to put the Utes in the position they currently find themselves? They have turned around and pretty much gone 180 degrees in the opposite direction when it comes to their offensive strategy.
When new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen was hired in the off-season, all of the talk about Utah’s offense focused on a high-speed spread system. That’s what the Utes actually tried to do at the start of the season. However, one thing the Washington State game (and the Utes’ only loss thus far) proved was that Utah’s defense simply cannot be expected to be on the field the entire game and still be as productive at the end of the game as it was at the start.
Instead of a high-speed spread offense, the Utes’ have evolved into more of a ground and pound mentality. Against UCLA, Utah had 242 yards rushing and only 100 yards passing. Against Oregon State, the Utes had 253 yards rushing and only 62 yards passing.
“We are winning with strong defense, strong kicking game, and strong running,” understated head coach Kyle Whittingham. “One of the factors we control is tempo. And we’ll make that determination as we go through the week, which tempo gives us the best chance to win. You have to do whatever you have to do to give yourself the chance to win. It’s a state of constant adjustment.”
A big part of Utah’s rushing attack has been the emergence of newcomer Devontae Booker. After starting the season sharing the running duties with last year’s starter, Bubba Poole, Booker proved early on he deserved to be the undisputed starter and he has never looked back. In the last three games, Booker has rushed for 178 yards (against Washington State), 156 yards (vs. UCLA) and 229 (Oregon State). Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Both Utah’s defense and its quarterback have benefited from the running game taking center stage in the Utes’ offense.
With a dominant running game, Utah’s offense is chewing up more clock, meaning the defense no longer has to be expected to play most of the game on the field.
An additional side-effect of Utah’s rushing attack is the de-emphasis of the quarterback controversy between last year’s starter, Travis Wilson, and newcomer Kendal Thompson. In the last two games, both quarterbacks have proven they perform much better coming off the bench instead of starting. Thompson sparked the offense coming off the bench to replace Wilson against UCLA. The following week, Wilson sparked the offense coming off the bench to replace Thompson against Oregon State.
However, both quarterbacks have proven they can hand the ball off to Booker, and I am just fine with that. With Booker in the backfield, I am far less concerned about who is taking the snaps from the center, or even which quarterback starts.
This week’s showdown with USC in Salt Lake City on Saturday night should be no different than the past few games. The key to victory lies in controlling both sides of the line of scrimmage. If the Utes can continue to run the ball effectively, I have every confidence the defense can hold the Trojans in check enough to secure another victory.
Here’s hoping Utah becomes bowl eligible in only its seventh game of the season.
Dwayne Vance is a columnist covering the Utah Utes. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.
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