‘We’ve got to finish’: Utah addressing red-zone issues
As Kyle Whittingham pointed out, there was one glaring weakness against Florida— the Utes were just 4 of 6 on red-zone opportunities. And it cost them the game.
In the 29-26 season-opening loss at Florida last Saturday, Utah’s offense racked up 446 yards, rushed for 230 yards and converted 8 of 13 third-down attempts.
Quarterback Cam Rising threw for 216 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 91 more yards; running back Tavion Thomas ran for 115 and a TD; and tight end Brant Kuithe hauled in nine passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.
A pretty good start.
Overall, coach Kyle Whittingham liked what he saw from the offense.
But, as he pointed out, there was one glaring weakness — the Utes were just 4 of 6 on red-zone opportunities.
Utah scored 26 points but that wasn’t enough.
“Had we been productive in the red zone, we win the game. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Whittingham said. “We were in the red zone six times and we only came away with three touchdowns. That’s not good enough.
“Conversely, they were in three times and came away with touchdowns all three times. That really was the biggest difference in the game,” he added. “Otherwise offensively, we took care of the football other than the last interception. We had good production with 450 yards. We ran the ball exceptionally well, particularly in the second half. But you judge the game as a whole, not in segments.”
Red-zone efficiency is something the Utes will try to fix as they take on Southern Utah Saturday (11:30 a.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network).
Utah’s inability to maximize its chances in the red zone was amplified by Rising’s interception in the end zone with 17 seconds remaining in the game.
Whittingham reiterated that he has the utmost confidence in Rising.
“Cam is our guy. I thought he had a good night — nearly 70% completion percentage, over 200 yards,” he said. “He’s very valuable running the football. Cam is our leader. You know he wishes he had that one back. I thought he played well for the most part.”
Before that final drive, the Utes were stuffed at the goal line by the Florida defense on the opening drive of the second half. That turnover on downs was a key moment in the game.
“The last fourth-and-goal, they made a nice stop on Tavion (Thomas) and kept him out of the end zone,” Whittingham said. “As you reexamine it, more creative play-calling is the first thing coach (Andy) Ludwig will tell you. Not quite as vanilla down there. Last year, we were a very good red-zone team. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Florida for what they did down there.”
Rising acknowledged that his team’s red-zone struggles are being addressed.
“We’ve got to clean it up and make sure that it’s fixed this week and make it right,” he said. “We need to get more push up front and make sure that we’re getting the ball in the end zone next time. That’s the only thing we need to correct.”
Running back Micah Bernard said Rising has better performances ahead of him.
“Cam played pretty good. I still believe that’s not his best. He still has the best to come,” he said. “Everybody remembers that one play, the last play. But up until then, you’ve got to think about what he did. I mean, the bad play came at the wrong time. But we have so much trust in Cam. We know what he’s capable of. We know what he can do.”
“He played well. He was commanding the team very well,” said wide receiver Devaughn Vele. “It was really loud. We could barely hear anything at all. But we didn’t let that affect our play. We knew what we had to do. We practiced with crowd noise. Cam did a great job of commanding us and every time in the huddle saying, ‘Let’s go! We’ve got to convert this down!’ He was talking up the guys.”
On the final drive, Utah had the ball at the Florida 25-yard line with 1:25 remaining. The Utes started marching down field, including a couple of clutch catches by Vele and a 29-yard run by Rising.
Utah’s offense looked and felt comfortable in that situation. Every Wednesday, the Utes go through two-minute drills.
“We put ourselves in situational football, whether it’s 1:20 and we have two timeouts. Or we have no timeouts with two minutes left. We felt well-prepared,” Vele said. “As a team, we’re really efficient at two-minute. We came up short in the end there but I have full trust in our offense when it comes to two-minute situations that when we have the ball and there’s only a minute left and we don’t have any timeouts, or one timeout, I’m confident in our team that we can drive downfield because we do so much in practice. We have that much trust in our guys.”
Vele and his teammates had no doubt that the offense would get into the end zone on that final drive and win the game.
“Any time the offense has the ball, we always have the mentality that we’re going to score. We don’t want to settle for field goals. And we definitely don’t want to punt. That’s just the standard that we have for our offense. Every time we get the ball, we should be driving and scoring. We have the dudes to do it,” Vele said. “We have a great O-line, we have a great quarterback, the running back room is unbelievable, same with the tight end room. And the receivers, we’re going to do just as good as everybody else.
“We have that mentality every time we’ve got the ball, that we’re going to score. When we saw we had 1:20 left on the clock, we had practiced two-minute all the time, and we had confidence entirely on our team that we were going to go down and score,” Vele added. “It was heartbreaking how it ended but it’s something that we can learn from and continue to improve as our offense improves throughout the season.”
So as the season continues, becoming more efficient in the red zone will continue to be a focus.
“Just finish,” Bernard said of what he wants to see from the offense this week. “When we drive the ball, we’ve got to finish. That’s it.”
Utes on the air
Southern Utah (1-0) at No. 13 Utah (0-1).
Saturday, 11:30 a.m. MDT.
TV: Pac-12 Network.
Radio: ESPN 700.