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Utes leaving the white stuff with hopes of better success in the red zone

SALT LAKE CITY — While the weather here is expected to be frightful with a winter storm warning, things are forecasted to be much more. delightful for the Utah Utes in the Bay Area.

Temperatures in the mid-50s and mostly sunny conditions are anticipated for Wednesday’s Foster Farms Bowl against Indiana at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

The Utes are scheduled to make the journey Saturday afternoon following a morning practice up on the hill — leaving snow for a couple of days without precipitation in the forecast.

“That will be fun. It’s freezing out here,” said senior offensive lineman Isaac Asiata. “I don’t know how much warmer it is in California but at least it's not snowing.”

While the 19th-ranked Utes are getting away from the white stuff, they’re still blue about the red zone. The offense has struggled mightily there — ranking last in the Pac-12 and 116th nationally with a scoring percentage of .760.

In 50 trips inside the red zone this season, Utah has scored 25 touchdowns and 13 field goals.

The Utes have come up empty 12 times.

“We’ve struggled in the red zone all season long,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “We left too many points on the field and didn’t take advantage of scoring opportunities and consequently, in my estimation, that’s what cost us a chance to win a championship.”

Whittingham added that it’s something that’s being addressed. He’s optimistic it’ll get fixed in bowl preparation.

“We hope so,” Whittingham said. “We’ve been working non-stop on it. So we hope so.”

Utah’s success rate in the red zone fell dramatically over the past season. The Utes fell from second in the Pac-12 (91.3 percent) last year to their current 12th-place ranking.

Quarterback Troy Williams leads the effort to turn things around. The primary focus, though, is snapping a two-game skid.

“Our main goal is sending the seniors out the right way,” Williams said.

Whittingham noted that the junior really settled in around the third or fourth game of the season, adding that he stopped trying to do too much, made better decisions and took better care of the ball.

“We think he’s going to continue to trend upward (and) trend in a positive direction,” Whittingham said.

Overall, Utah co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick noted that the offense has been better this season than last.

“We’ve improved a lot,” Roderick said before Utah’s 27-22 loss at Colorado on Nov. 26. “We’re better in every statistic over a year ago. We’ve improved in everything.”

Even so, Roderick admits it wasn’t good enough to win the Pac-12 South. The Utes, however, were just a few plays away from getting there.

“So it’s not good enough. We’ve got to keep getting better,” he said. “We’ve got to take another step like this next year and hopefully we can get it done.”

From 2015 to 2016, Utah has improved its total offense from 363 to 427.4 yards per game. Passing is up 36.7 yards per game and rushing has risen 27.5 yards. Other improvements include first downs (up 1.8 per game) and time of possession (nearly one minute higher).

Interceptions are down from 11 to seven and Williams has completed passes of greater than 40 yards in seven games.

“Our game is run it, run it, run it and throw it down the field,” Roderick explained. “That’s what we said we were going to do this year and that’s what we’ve done and that’s why we’ve been good.”

Roderick added that the personnel is getting better and the Utes have got to keep recruiting in that regard.

“We’ve thrown the ball better this year but we’ve got to continue to improve, for sure,” Roderick said. “We’ve got to finish games.”

When it comes to bowl games, nobody does it better than squads led by Whittingham. His 9-1 record at the helm leads the NCAA.

Whittingham credits preparation for the program's success.

“It’s a fine line. You want to be ready. You don’t want to wear them out, which I think we’ve done a good job of through the years,” Whittingham said. “We work hard but I think our guys have been fresh for the bowl. We expect that same thing to be this year.”