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Utah Utes football: Offense trying to get back on track

U. running back Matt Asiata, shown here during fall practices, was supposed to be the focal point of the offense, but he's out with injury.
U. running back Matt Asiata, shown here during fall practices, was supposed to be the focal point of the offense, but he's out with injury.
August Miller, Deseret News

No offense, but the Utah football doesn't seem to have much lately — offense, that is.

The Ute offense has been in a funk for the past two games, averaging just 11 first downs and less than 300 total yards, after averaging 21 first downs and 437 yards through the first five games of the season.

However, thanks to lesser opponents, some standout defensive performances and a bit of luck, the Utes have kept on winning, moving to 6-1 on the season and to No. 16 in the latest BCS standings.

Still, their inconsistent offense is a concern, and while the Utes can probably get by for their next two games, they will have to improve for future games against TCU, San Diego State and BYU.

"We certainly have deficiencies and we're aware of that," said coach Kyle Whittingham. "We're not hitting on all cylinders."

When asked about offensive coordinator Dave Schramm, Whittingham said the first-year coordinator has "done a solid job" and he pointed out that the Utes are No. 3 in the Mountain West Conference in several offensive categories.

If you ask Schramm about the stagnant offense of late, he puts the responsibility on himself.

"I'm disappointed in myself and working hard to fix it," he said. "I've got to do a better job. It falls on me."

Perhaps it is a way to deflect attention away from his players' performance on the field, or perhaps Schramm is part of the problem. It is his first year as an offensive coordinator after being the running backs coach for the previous four years.

"It's a process," he said. "I'm new, Terrance (Cain) is new. There's no excuses — we've got to overcome that. It's midway through the season and we are stagnant, and it should be going the other direction."

Among the factors for the Utes' struggles are the fact that they lost running back and senior captain Matt Asiata to a season-ending injury, Cain's apparent lack of arm strength, the play calling and the no-huddle offense losing its effectiveness.

Schramm addressed each.

Asiata went down in the fourth game, but on paper, his injury hasn't seemed to hurt the Utes much.

Eddie Wide stepped in during the Louisville game and has ripped off four straight 100-yard games, filling in for Asiata.

However, the Ute offense was built around Asiata, a north-south type runner, who can bowl defenders over. The Utes also used the "Asiata package," where Asiata would take a direct snap and look for yards up the middle.

"We miss Matt in the locker room and not having him around," Schramm said.

"He was one of our leaders. The run game isn't different. Matt's great ability was to hammer a guy and break a tackle, while Eddie will make the guy miss."

The Utes haven't shown much propensity to throw the deep ball. Most of Cain's completions have been on passes in the flat or on slants, less than 15 yards downfield.

Schramm doesn't acknowledge Cain's lack of arm strength, nor does he defend his arm strength. He said Cain has tried to force a couple of long balls this year and has immediately known he made a mistake.

However, without Cain showing an ability to complete long passes, defenses have been playing the Utes tighter and cutting off the shorter passes in recent games.

As for the no-huddle offense, it was effective early on, but lately it seems Cain goes up to the line and looks toward the bench before getting the play off just before the 25-second clock expires. Schramm said when that happens, "we're trying to get the protection right and the right play called."

"I've been really happy with it, especially when we've been going fast," Schramm said. "But when you get behind the chains, it's hard to go fast, so now you're making up ground, instead of gaining ground.

As for the play-calling, Schramm said, "When you're not as experienced, you tend to feel like you're underachieving, so you press a little more. We've got to overcome that."

The good news for the Utes is that they are playing two of the MWC's worst teams over the next two weeks, and both games are at home. This may give them the chance to get some of the offensive bugs worked out before the big game on Nov. 14 in Fort Worth against No. 6-ranked TCU.

"Our guys are working through it and there's no doubt we need to play better," said Schramm. "We've got to be more productive. We've just got to execute. I know this — we have great kids and they work hard, and I have a lot of confidence we'll get it fixed."