If Kyle Whittingham is trying to help his football team, he’s going about it the wrong way.
Yes, of course, he knows his guys better than anyone else – far better than I do, certainly – but common sense dictates a more unifying, calculating approach to building his University of Utah football team’s confidence after last Saturday’s miserable loss to Pac-12 opponent Washington State.
The Utes, now 3-1 on the season and 0-1 in conference play, were not expected to contend for anything beyond a winning record and a trip to a bowl game this season. But, naturally, when they jumped out to an early 3-0 record, highlighted by a road victory over Michigan at the Wolverines’ famed 110,000-seat stadium, pulses quickened and hearts soared. The idea that maybe, just maybe, Utah could pull off something special this season didn’t seem too far-fetched.
After all, quarterback Travis Wilson looked sharper than ever, even after last year’s season-ending concussion and subsequent life-threatening health scare. In addition, Utah’s defense had been stout and its special teams, led by newcomer Kaelin Clay and automatic kicker Andy Phillips, were both reliable and jaw-dropping at the same time.
And then came the big record scratch.
Just make sure we get the history right, let’s review last weekend’s frustrating 28-27 loss: Under windy, damp and chilly conditions at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utes raced out to a 21-0 lead on the strength of three eye-popping big plays: a “pick-six” interception return, a 58-yard punt return from Clay and a 76-yard run from Devontae Booker.
The Utes added a 46-yard field goal from Phillips and went into halftime leading 24-7. Astonishingly, they were outscored 21-3 after the break thanks to a putrid mixture of bad throws, dropped passes and odd decision making.
Utah’s defense was as sturdy as could reasonably be expected against a WSU offense whose objective is to wear opponents down with a fire drill-like barrage of dizzying pass routes. As the momentum turned and the Cougars predictably picked up their stride, the Utes’ defense paid the price. Wazzu finally went ahead late in the fourth quarter thanks to an 81-yard TD pass from quarterback Connor Halliday to receiver Vince Mayle.
OK, now that we’ve established the recent history, let’s examine the fallout: In the postgame, Whittingham openly wondered about not getting backup QB Kandal Thompson in on a few more series, as he’d done in previous games. During Monday’s weekly press conference, the coach mentioned it again.
“We're taking a look at all possibilities. Kendal (Thompson), in hindsight, probably should have gotten a couple of series in the game Saturday,” he said. “But we're looking for any and every answer we can come up with offensively.”
It’s worth noting in the interest of fairness, Whittingham wasn’t disparaging Wilson. Instead, he was rightfully fretting over the Utes’ passing game.
“In this league you have to be able to throw the ball consistently week in and week out, and we didn't do that Saturday night,” he said. “We have to be more productive throwing the football. The protection wasn't bad. It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad.”
But even taking into account all of the above, Whittingham doesn’t have a better option at quarterback and he knows it. Wilson struggled against the Cougars, completing only 18 of 38 passes for 165 yards and no touchdowns. There were a number of dropped passes, however, including a critical one by soon-to-be NFLer Dres Anderson, who finished the night with as many receptions as I did (that’s zero, if you’re scoring at home).
Had the dropped balls been caught, Wilson likely would have finished the game with 23 or 24 completions and then who knows?
Wilson isn’t without his share of the blame, but you wouldn’t know that to listen to the media and the fanbase. The funny thing is, that sort of overreaction is expected from the people in the press box and the folks in the stands.
The head coach, on the other hand, needs to go out of his way to ensure his players – least of all his quarterback – don’t believe their leader is looking for the panic button.
Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @StandardExJimbo