The Year in Review: Utah (8-5, 4-5)
By Paul Myerberg // Feb 22, 2012
Compare Utah with Bowling Green, which had its own brief, two-year encounter with Urban Meyer from 2001-2. The Falcons hired Gregg Brandon, Meyer’s former offensive coordinator, after the latter took over for Ron McBride in Salt Like City. And like Utah, the program was able to maintain some of its Meyer-era success under Brandon: 11-3 in 2003 and 9-3 in 2004, with those 20 wins the second-most over a two-year span in the history of the program. But Bowling Green returned to mid-tier status in the MAC beginning in 2005, and remained there for the final four years of Brandon’s tenure — and has remained there for the first three years under Dave Clawson.
What makes Bowling Green’s middling near-decade without Meyer all the more painful is the fact that for two years, Brandon’s first pair, the program played better football than it ever did under Meyer. Meyer’s entire two-year tenure was not as strong as Brandon’s first two years, in short.
This ignores the most important factor, however: Bowling Green won games under Brandon because Meyer paved the road. And it wasn’t merely that Brandon was winning with Meyer’s players, in the sense that Meyer recruited the majority of those contributors who helped him win 20 games over his first two seasons.
That’s not necessarily false — the idea that Brandon won with his predecessor’s recruits — but it’s not entirely correct: Brandon won because he inherited players who had memorized Meyer’s system, one that allowed Bowling Green to move so quickly up the MAC ladder from 2001-4. As soon as Brandon needed to replenish the ranks unfamiliar with Meyer’s system, according to this theory, the bottom dropped out.
Like Bowling Green, the Utes replaced Meyer from within his staff: Kyle Whittingham, then the defensive coordinator and a longtime Utah assistant, turned down an opportunity to replace Gary Crowton at his alma mater, B.Y.U., to take over a Utah program clearly on the rise.
Unlike Bowling Green, Utah didn’t immediately build upon, let alone maintain, its level of success under Meyer — though it’s hard to build upon 12-0, of course. Though not impossible: Whittingham went 13-0 in 2008, four years after stepping into Meyer’s shoes. But he always had a plan, and it wasn’t one that merely relied on Meyer’s two-year foundation; it was based on the idea of developing players suited for what Whittingham wanted to achieve on both sides of the ball.
So why was Utah able to excel after Meyer’s two-year stint while Bowling Green has been unable to maintain that standard of success? No, it’s not because of Utah’s built-in advantages. Utah will always bring in a better level of talent than Bowling Green, but the latter will always play a weaker level of competition — both program’s talent level has always been relatively commensurate to its level of competition.
And it’s not because Utah is Utah and Bowling Green is Bowling Green; it’s not the fact that Utah should win, while Bowling Green shouldn’t. Simply put, it’s because Utah aced its hire while Bowling Green didn’t — this is just another example of the importance of that transition hire, one that attempts, with fingers crossed, to link a successful present to the future.
Bowling Green was able to keep the momentum flowing for two years, until it became clear that Brandon had no clear schematic for continuing the program’s success. Utah was able to build upon Meyer-era success because Whittingham’s blueprint went beyond rote memorization — let’s do what we did under Meyer.
This is again a timely topic to discuss: Utah, for the first time since 2005, needs Whittingham to step forward with a plan to address the program’s newest test. In the big picture, Utah wants to be as successful in the Pac-12 as it was in the Mountain West, where it won 33 games from 2008-10. More specifically, Whittingham needs to solve the program’s issues on the offensive side of the ball.
Now more than ever, Utah needs an identity on offense. This has much to do with the Pac-12’s recent move towards the offensive side of the ball; as a whole, the conference is defined by its ability to score points, not its ability to keep points off the board. Whittingham’s solution for his team’s offensive woes was to hire 24-year-old Brian Johnson, his former quarterback and quarterbacks coach who now doubles as the youngest coordinator in major college football.
Season grade: B+ Was it the season Utah may have envisioned? Probably not; this is a program greatly accustomed to running roughshod over conference opposition, so that the Utes finished a game under .500 in Pac-12 play was certainly a change, to put it lightly. Yet there was much to like about this team, beginning with the fact that the Utes were able to cobble together eight wins despite two significant disadvantages: the increased level of competition and the program’s worst offense in a decade. The Utes finished last in the Pac-12 in passing and scoring offense, and needed every ounce of energy from its defense, which was ready for the conference change, to win at least eight games for sixth consecutive season. Was the program as a whole ready for the move to the Pac-12? There’s little doubt that Utah was ready, and is ready, once the offense catches up, to battle U.S.C. for South division supremacy.
High point A 54-10 win over B.Y.U., in my estimation. However, a comment from last week’s post on the Holy War suggested that a Sun Bowl win over Georgia Tech was the high point of the season.
Low point An ugly start, what with the painful loss to U.S.C. and three ugly setbacks to Washington, Arizona State and California. On the other hand, nothing nears a 17-14 loss at home to Colorado to end the regular season. It was the Buffaloes’ first road win as a member of the Pac-12, not to mention the program’s first true road win since beating Texas Tech in 2007.
Offensive M.V.P. Utah needed an immediate boost at running back. Then-seniors Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata shared the load in 2010, combining for 19 touchdowns and more than 1,400 yards, but there was no rising succession plan in place. Enter JUCO transfer John White IV, who grasped hold of the opportunity for immediate playing time and, well, ran with it. White rushed for 1,520 yards, shattering Utah’s previous single-season record, and did so in spite of — and partly thanks to — the lack of other options in the backfield. To underline White’s importance to Utah’s offense, consider this: he averaged 182.4 rushing yards per game in the Utes’ seven wins, compared to 48.6 yards per game in Utah’s five losses. He’s a Heisman contender heading into September.
Defensive M.V.P. Conferences change. One thing remains the same: Utah plays defense as well as any team in the country. The program has not allowed more than 300 points in a season since 1996, and has allowed 263, 264 and 263 points, respectively, over the last three seasons. There were the odd spurts of inconsistency last fall, but the defense gelled over the second half of the season; after allowing 24.5 points per game against its first six F.B.S. opponents, Utah allowed 15.8 points per game over the final five games of the regular season. The defense was paced by two linemen, Star Lotulelei and Derrick Shelby, both of whom earned first-team all-conference honors.
Stock watch The growing pains, slight as they may be, should continue in 2012. But the worst is behind Utah; that the worst was an eight-win debut in the Pac-12 says much about the rare air the program currently inhabits — there are very, very few non-B.C.S. conference programs who could step right into a B.C.S. league and compete, such as Utah did a year ago. And that the Utes did so despite the offensive deficiencies says much about the program’s potential in the Pac-12 South. How far this team goes in 2012 depends in large part on Johnson’s ability to hit the ground running at offensive coordinator. His first task will be getting more from the quarterback position, as the running game should continue to roll even with a few painful losses along the offensive line.
Tags: Bowling Green, Brian Johnson, Derrick Shelby, Gregg Brandon, John White IV, Kyle Whittingham, Pac-12, Star Lotulelei, Urban Meyer, Utah
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