Utah’s idling pass offense, and a precedent

  Sometime in the third quarter of Monday’s Rose Bowl, it began to be apparent: Utah’s quest to take its football season a step farther than it did a year ago was going to go unfulfilled. Penn State had the huge, gashing big plays and it had the defense to contain a relatively benign Utes offense.

  And the fact that the Utah quarterback, the terrific Cam Rising, was injured as he was in the previous Rose Bowl against Ohio State lent to the sense of depressing déjà vu for the Ute hopefuls.

  Watching the Utah offense trying to match points against the thunderous big plays from the Nittany Lions, I was struck by a blast from the past – Arizona and Dick Tomey. In a different way, but to the same effect, the Utes have been defined by their offensive limitations.

  You may recall the late Tomey as the architect of Arizona’s truculent Desert Swarm teams of the early 1990s. You might as well have measured offenses’ progress against those teams in inches, not yards. His Wildcats beat Miami, 29-0, in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl.

  Tomey was a breath of old-school fresh air in the offense-minded Pac-10, a guy who ran conservative, run-based offense and relied on defense and special teams. He was different, and he was successful.

  He was a practitioner of the “bull in the ring” drill. He’d gather his troops on the sideline a bit before games, they’d form a circle, he’d call out a couple of guys of like stature, and those two would confront each other in the middle and for a few seconds, essentially wrestle to the whistle.

  The Wildcats would repeat it a couple of times until they were in a gnarly enough mood to kick it off.

  Tomey was widely beloved, by fellow coaches and media. He dared to step outside the box. He played city-league baseball in Tucson – hardball, alongside guys in their 20s and 30s – when he was 60.

  But it’s a confounding skeleton in Arizona’s history that through Tomey’s 14 seasons there – and the 31 others since the Wildcats joined the Pac-10 in 1978 – that they haven’t had a first-team All-Pac-10/12 quarterback. They’ve had capable players there – Ortege Jenkins, Keith Smith, Willie Tuitama – but never, in one season, the best guy in the league.

  I see some Dick Tomey in Kyle Whittingham, the Utah coach, and by most measures, that’s certainly not a bad thing. Away from football, his thing isn’t baseball, but downhill skiing, fast skiing, and riding motorcycles.

In a decade’s time since the Utes joined the conference, Whittingham has molded them into what is the most feared team in the league – not always the best nor the most potent, but the outfit that’s regularly going to pound you the hardest, to play the most fervently, to exact the greatest physical toll.

  But they’re never going to out-finesse you, and that element may be what’s keeping Utah from taking that final step, the one that gets them into the playoffs or wins them a premier bowl game in dominant fashion (and yes, I’m aware of the victory over Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, in the pre-Pac-12 era).

  For years, Utah was regarded as a program that couldn’t find a top-shelf quarterback. But Tyler Huntley helped turn that around, and the gifted, gritty Rising took it a step further.

  Still, what’s stifled Utah most on offense is its lack of explosiveness on the outside. The Utes don’t threaten anybody on the perimeter. On the morning of the Rose Bowl, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit was mulling the potential impact of the opt-out of Penn State cornerback Joey Porter, and he concluded that the Nittany Lions would be fine. He didn’t say it, but that’s because Utah doesn’t present a problem on the flanks.

  Meanwhile, Utah’s Clark Phillips, an AP first-team All-American corner, also opted out, and the Utes got the worst of that exchange.

  This isn’t anything especially new in Salt Lake City. Since Utah entered the conference in 2011, they’ve landed just one spot on any of the Pac-12’s first or second all-league teams at wide receiver. That was Darren Carrington II in 2017, and he was a grad transfer from Oregon.

  In that same period, USC had 13 such selections.

  No doubt the Ute offense was cramped by the attrition at tight end, where it lost two NFL-level players, Brant Kuithe to injury and Dalton Kincaid as an injury opt-out.  Those absences and the lack of punch at wideout – DeVaughn Vele led the Ute wide receivers with 55 catches for 695 yards, neither figure among the league’s top 10 – necessitated some increased running by Rising, and as fearless as the big guy is in that role, it’s obviously not without its risks.

  There are coaches whose primary tenets are so much the foundation of their program, that it makes you wonder if they can accommodate the player who might stretch those boundaries. Whittingham’s ability to do that might chart the course in making a very good program great.