In last week’s 38-29 win over lowly Arizona, Utah made a slew of mistakes.
While the Utes played almost flawlessly in victories over UCLA and Stanford, they took a step back, in terms of miscues, in Tucson.
“We’ve just got to clean things up,” coach Kyle Whittingham said.
But going into Utah’s next game Saturday (5:30 p.m. MST, ABC) against No. 3 Oregon, the No. 24 Utes know they have little margin for error if they are to spring an upset.
“I think it’s going to take not shooting ourselves in the foot,” wide receiver Britain Covey said about beating the Ducks. “We had that happen a lot this last week. I’m actually glad it happened this last week going into this game so we can clean up that stuff.”
That list of things to clean up includes punting (Utah gave up a punt block for a touchdown against Arizona), eight penalties and a few dropped passes. Whittingham said he’d also like to get the tight ends more involved in the offense. Defensively, the Utes were soft against the run early on against the Wildcats.
The penalties Utah committed were uncharacteristic of this team.
“We’ve got to be smarter,” Whittingham said. “All season long, we’ve been very good in that department. (Saturday), the wheels kind of came off.”
Against Oregon, the Utes need to keep the wheels on.
Meanwhile, in other ways, Utah has been playing at an extremely high level.
In Pac-12 games only, the Utes lead the league in scoring offense (38.4 ppg), touchdowns scored (36), total offense per game (466.4) and rushing touchdowns (24). The Utes are No. 2 in the league in rushing offense (242) and team pass efficiency (144.7).
“We’re on a really consistent path offensively, which has been really good,” Whittingham said. “That’s been a positive part of the last seven games.”
Early in the season, the Utes struggled in third-down conversion percentage. But now, Utah ranks No. 3 in the Pac-12 and in the top 30 in the FBS in that category.
The Utes have rolled up at least 450 yards of total offense in their last six contests and they’ve been much more efficient in the red zone.
“The offense has gotten better on third downs during the course of the year,” Whittingham said. “The thing that has been a huge plus is the offensive red-zone production. That seems to be getting better and better. That was the difference in the game Saturday. Arizona was one of four in the red zone and we were five out of six. You do the math, and that was the difference.”
To what does Whittingham attribute his offense’s improvement in the red zone?
“Well, we’ve worked hard at it. We weren’t good early in the year. We had our struggles. It’s always a point of emphasis and it became more of a point of emphasis as the struggles emerged,” he said. “Guys are starting to get confidence down there now.
“You’ve seen the emergence of Tavion (Thomas), a big back in the red zone helps you out. Andy (Ludwig) has done a really nice job of putting together red-zone packages and keeping things mixed up and less predictable.”
Defensively, Utah ranks third in the Pac-12 in total defense (344.1) and leads the league in sacks (3.18) and tackles for loss (7.7) per game. The Utes also lead the Pac-12 in third-down defense (.361).
“I would say it’s the development of our freshmen. They’re getting better each week. You saw (safety) Cole Bishop play a great game last week,” Whittingham said. “(Defensive lineman) Van Fillinger seems to play well every week. (Defensive lineman) Junior Tafuna is playing well. The primary reason for that is we’re starting to grow up at a lot of positions and get better and more consistent play.”
This season, special teams has been a mixed bag for Utah. The Utes have given up a couple of kickoff returns for touchdowns and they’ve had a couple of punts blocked.
“We had another huge mistake in the punt protection. Fortunately, it didn’t cost us the game,” Whittingham said. “But you’d think we’d have that solved by now, but apparently we didn’t. Back to the drawing board with that. We’ve got to coach it better. We’ve got to find a way to protect our punter.”
What exactly happened on the blocked punt last Saturday?
“We blew a protection on the left side. We were supposed to block a gap and we blocked half-a-gap. That was the issue,” Whittingham said. “The ball came out right around 2.0 (seconds), which is pretty typical for a get-off time for a punt. We just haven’t done a good enough job coaching it. That’s the bottom line.”
No doubt, if the Utes want to knock off Oregon, they need to play a clean game Saturday.