Cal Sports Digest: Utah is off to another dismal start in the Pac-12, going 0-4 in conference play for the second consecutive year. Is this more the result of the Utes' struggles on offense, including the retirement of quarterback Jordan Wynn because of injuries, or issues related to stepping up in class from the Mountain West?
Brian Swinney of Inside the Utes: It's a combination of things. We all thought at the beginning of the season that Jordan Wynn 2012 would be similar to Jordan Wynn 2010. Instead we got another Jordan Wynn 2011. The 2010 Wynn would have been a top half of the Pac 12 QB this year. Instead, Utah has the worst QB situation in the conference. The jump up in talent from the Mountain West has been more than we anticipated. Most expected Utah to be towards the bottom of the conference in player talent, but the coaching would help make up for it. It's become apparent that not only is the talent even further below what we thought, but the coaching staff talent isn't as good as we anticipated either. They'll improve, but no one in Salt Lake City figured it would be this tough.
CSD: Since inserting true freshman quarterback Travis Wilson into the starting lineup, it looks like Utah is transitioning back to the spread offenses that produced so much success of late. How has the scheme changed with the lanky and mobile Wilson running the show?
BS:The offense is much more productive. Whether it's Wilson back there, or former starter Jon Hays, Utah is in a better position to move the ball consistently. The offensive line just couldn't block with the QB under center. Now that they're in shotgun, they don't have to block for as long, and Utah can get the play to develop faster, which has resulted in more success (but not more points).
CSD: Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei gets most of the attention, but how does the rest of the Utah front seven stack up?
BS: At the beginning of the season, you could make the case that Utah had the best front 4 in the conference, mostly because of Lotulelei. We now know that may have been a bit lofty of an expectation. They're stout, play the run well, and are HUGE across the board, but QB pressure and QB sacks are nowhere to be found, which puts a lot of pressure on the secondary. The linebackers are constantly rotating from week to week. Utah has started 8 different linebackers this year out of a 4-3 defense. That's a ton of guys to move in and out from week to week, especially considering they haven't had injury issues. There's been a huge lack of consistency, tackling issues, and MAJOR issues in coverage. Definitely the weak part of the defense so far this year, although they were much better last week.
CSD: Coach Kyle Whittingham has been lamenting the lack of interceptions by the defense, with only two picks in seven games. Is it bad luck, bad technique, or is something else responsible for such a low tally?
BS: Utah had quite a few chances to pick off passes early in the year, but simply dropped them. There have been about 10 easy picks that they didn't make. The last few games have had limited opportunities for interceptions. Part of it is not getting pressure on the QB and forcing them into errant throws.
CSD: Much like Cal, the Utes have struggled to get out of the blocks, being outscored 62-28 in the first quarter this season. Why hasn't Utah been able to start fast?
BS: Utah is built on offense to work around the running game and John White. White is traditionally a better second half of the game runner, and has started slow in almost every single game this year. If he can't get going, the Utah offense doesn't get going. That 62-28 total would be even worse if not for a defensive touchdown against USC, a very short field for another touchdown following a USC turnover, and a special teams touchdown on a dropped punt against UCLA, and another short drive following a BYU turnover. Utah's longest first quarter scoring drive this season is 17 yards. The Utes aren’t built to come from behind either, which is why these first quarter issues are so alarming.
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.