Welcome to the Travis Wilson era. It's now upon us and there's no turning back. Wilson will be the starter from here on out (unless he's injured) and what we got yesterday should be comparable to what we should expect for the remainder of the 2012 season.
Is Wilson the answer? Yes, longterm he is. Was he the answer yesterday? That's hard to say. Going 23 for 33 for 220 yards is a solid day, especially for a true freshman making his first career start, but Utah still couldn't move the chains or capitalize until they ran a hurry up offense and UCLA dropped into a prevent and stopped bringing pressure. We've heard all week about how Jon Hays never threw for 200 or more yards in a game. Jon Hays was also never afforded the opportunity to throw the ball 33 times in a game either. In his 12 career starts, Hays never passes more than 32 times (a mark he set last week against USC), and only eclipsed 30 attempts 3 times. Wilson goes over that in his first start against a UCLA team that brought pressure consistently? Why? Why trust a true freshman to throw the ball that many times in his first start, but not let a veteran who has won you games do that? Surprising.
It's apparent that Wilson is more skilled than Hays in terms of raw ability, but the feeling by going with Wilson is that this season has been mailed in and the Utes are building for the future. Is that the right move? Kyle Whittingham said last week that until they are mathematically eliminated from the Pac 12 South title, the goal is to win each game with the best players on the players on the field that give Utah the best chance to win that game. I'm not sure if I believe that right now.
The offensive philosophy has to change. As my esteemed colleague, Brian Smith, pointed out, Utah has now changed their plan of attack to 'make third downs manageable.' That's all well and good in theory, and 3 and 2 is much better than 3 and 9, but going 75 to 80 yards down the field in small increments, trying to make sure that your 3rd downs are manageable, means drives that take 15 plays. This Utah offense, especially the offensive line, isn't good enough to sustain 15 play drives without committing mistakes. At some point, the other team is going to make a play that results in negative yardage, or Utah is going to commit a false start or holding penalty that turns what would be a 3rd and 3 into a 3rd and 8 or 3rd and 13. Those are situations that mean almost certain failure on 3rd down. It's going to take more big plays on first and second down to score. Utah's longest play of the day on first down: the 14 yarder to Jake Murphy on the first offensive play of the game.
Utah had one of the worst defensive third down days in Utah football history. It wasn't so much the number or percentage of third downs that the Bruins converted on, it was the distances that they converted, and the manner in which they did it, with Hundley breaking off 8 and 9 yard scrambles again and again to move the chains, keeping the defense on the field, and allowing UCLA to control the tempo of the game.
The lack of pressure out of the defensive ends continues to be a problem. The defensive tackles put more pressure on Hundley throughout the game than the ends, despite Star facing double and triple teams on every single play. If Utah can't get pressure with their ends, Kalani Sitake needs to dial up something different. Send corners on blitzes. Bring linebackers on a blitz. Try something different. Hundley sat back there all day with plenty of time to through, working behind a line that features three freshmen.
The linebackers are the same old story. Poor in coverage and a stop slow. The safeties weren't terrible, but Eric Rowe's mistake on the long UCLA TD pass early in the game was a backbreaker.
Is Utah a bad team? No. Are they a good team? No. There are deficiencies in both player personnel and on the coaching staff that are keeping them from being a Pac 12 squad that can compete for championships right now. Until that changes, games like this are going to be the norm. What we saw out of Utah against UCLA is Utah football 2012. That may be hard to swallow, but I think that at this point, the performance yesterday is what we should expect. It was an average performance against an above average team on the road. This is an average team.
So, where are we now? 2 wins and 4 losses. 0 and 3 in conference. A road trip coming up this week against an undefeated top 10 team. I think we can safely say, that dreams of a Pac 12 South title are out the door. Now, it's all about getting bowl eligible and gaining that extra month of practice that is so valuable in developing the youngsters leading into 2013. How does Utah get there? Oregon State will be a heavy favorite and it will take a colossal effort to knock off the Beavers in Corvallis. Cal comes to Salt Lake City the week after and are a poor road team, but they just mauled Wazzu in Pullman and beat this same UCLA team that Utah just lost to by 26 points last week. Another home date with Washington State the next week is an absolute must win, and probably the Utes' best chance at a victory for the rest of the season. Traveling to Washington will be a tough test, and Utah will be a prohibitive underdog. At home against Arizona is a toss-up at this point. The Wildcats have played a tough conference schedule to this point and are still winless in the Pac 12. Then it's the finale in Boulder against a Colorado team that is steadily improving. The second half of the season is without a doubt the easier half, but 4 wins in 6 games. Outside of Washington State and maybe Colorado, there's not much to be confident about other than a couple of average performances.