Utah defensive end Ryan Akina stormed off the football field last Saturday in Oregon, incensed over a personal-foul call he was sure he didn't deserve. Ron McBride just happened to be in Akina's way, and the 6-foot-5, 268-pound senior exploded at the coach.
Which may be exactly what the Utah football program needs more of."I was kind of pleased, in a way," said McBride, "because of the look in the kid's eyes. He wanted to fight. We probably need more kids like that. The kid wanted to win. He had the look in his eyes, crying. We need more kids that will fight for what they believe in."
Oddly, Rice's win over New Mexico last week put Utah (2-2 in the WAC and 3-4 overall) back in the WAC Mountain Division race. Despite losing its third straight game, including two conference losses, if Utah wins the rest of its contests, it could still win the division and goes to the league championship game.
Reality, however, says Utah football is in crisis, losing seven of its last 11, dating back to last season. Saturday it hosts New Mexico (6-1, 3-1). A fourth straight loss would tie McBride's worst period - an 0-4 stretch in his first season in 1990 - when he was just trying to teach fundamentals.
In its eighth season, McBride says his program "should be at a point where it carries itself." It shouldn't revert to the days of its infancy - and McBride doesn't think it is - but he adds, "The whole thing is being tested as heavy as you can." He correlates it more to 1995, when, after a 10-2 '94, a young team also started 3-4, then won its last four.
Whatsa matta U.?
Theories abound. "When things are not going well, everyone in the world knows why," McBride says. "It's good that they care enough to have an opinion. If you were doing poorly and nobody cared, then you've got a problem."
OK, so that's the one problem he doesn't have.
"It's almost like you're getting punished for all the bad things you've done in your life," McBride muses. "It's a tough situation, extremely difficult to live with."
Some anxious fans who call talk shows and vote on the Web want coaches' heads, postulating that offensive play-calling is unimaginative, the no-blitz defense is bland, and adjustments to what opponents are doing aren't noticeable.
Says McBride: "I believe in my coaching staff. I'll evaluate everything at the end of the season. These guys have served me well. I believe in them as people and as coaches, and that's the only statement that I'll make."
Certainly coaches have to give players a way to win, but even privately, players support the staff and blame themselves for poor execution of plays that could have worked.
For now, every half played seems to bring a new breakdown. Fix one, two more pop up.
- At Fresno, the line allowed 12 sacks of quarterbacks Jonathan Cross-white and Darnell Arce-neaux. Running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala sprained an ankle. It would have been inspirational if he could have played on it, but he couldn't. He's still hurting.
- In the 20-19 home loss to SMU, Crosswhite was jumpy and mechanical, anticipating more blitzes. He threw two quick interceptions. All-America candidate Kevin Dyson dropped three passes; others had drops. Mistakes were everywhere. A Mustang fumble that Ute linebacker Phil Glover returned 40 yards wasn't a fumble, thanks to an inadvertent whistle.
Arceneaux finally replaced Crosswhite. Utah almost came back. Tommy Truhe had his only bad day, missing two field goals with a tying PAT kick blocked.
- On the road against Oregon, Utah met a smart, key-reading offense that scores on everybody; a team that profited from every U. error - ill-timed penalties, safeties playing the wrong areas, more Dyson drops, bad quarterback reads, ineffectiveness on key third-down and red-zone plays. Most glaring were three 15-yard U. penalties leading to back-to-back Duck TDs on stalled-out drives.
What's really wrong?
When searching for reasons for the Utes' slide, two underlying factors continue to crop up: injuries and "nice guy syndrome."
Injuries are No. 1 with a bullet.
Trainer Bill Bean says the number of injuries (25-30) isn't alarmingly high, but nearly every one has been to a starter.
Continuity and chemistry haven't had a chance to develop. Ten players are out for the season, most of them since training camp. Nine are starters or second-teamers. Six key players who went out in training camp returned at midseason, but lingering pain limits their snaps. The offensive line's left side and linebacker have taken the most hits, but the secondary is also down.
- Defensive backs Brandon Dart and Cal Beck have been lost for the season.
- Key offensive contributors Fuamatu-Ma'afala and receiver Daniel Jones missed all or most of the three losses.
- Four starting left guards have gone down. Todd Jackson is back for a few plays a game, but Luis Park and Hema Katoa are out for the season. The starting left tackle and center tried to move over but got hurt. Freshmen started last week at center and left guard.
- Glover is the latest of 10 injured linebackers. He had surgery Sunday for torn thumb ligaments. He'll play in a cast. Last Friday, backup Howard Christianson (surgery for elbow fracture and dislocation) joined three other LBs on the list of those out for the season. Starters Taulia Lave and Cyrus Satofaiga missed several games each.
- When tight end Dirk Christofferson got his cast off Monday (preseason broken hand), the hand had a staph infection. He's among eight players now listed as day-to-day.
Can a team have too many good guys?
Some theorize they can. Several players are trying to lead but are still learning how. They are too nice to get in teammates' faces, especially when they've made their own mistakes the last three weeks. That's why McBride was pleased when Akina went off.
Some may be getting the hang of it. Last week, Crosswhite vowed "No more Mr. Nice," and the offense did improve. Starting two freshmen, the line had its best game since Sept. 20, giving Juan Johnson (190 yards) gaping holes. And Johnson has been an inspiration starting for the injured Fuamatu-Ma'afala.
McBride says Dyson is trying so hard he tries to do too much. He turns to run for the big play Utah so badly needs before making the catch. Last week, he ended with two spectacular catches. He went out of bounds for both; the edge appeared to be back.
U. players like each other. There are no outcasts, no targets. Nobody gripes, nobody blames. "You can't yell at each other," says tackle Pene Talamaivao. He says the solution is "a lot of guys challenging themselves in practice. We go at it, do the best we can."
Does McBride think his team is too nice?
"Could be right," McBride says. "It's a game for nasty people." At halftime in Oregon, he told his players, "It's not good what Ryan did, but I'd like to see more of that in your eyes."
McBride says Washington coach Don James once realized his team was too nice, and "he had to go back to recruiting the other guys." Wins returned. "Guys that are hard to control are usually pretty good players. It's a fine line," says McBride.
He may have to ultimately decide if it should it be crossed in the name of Utah victory.