Midway through the college football season, the University of Utah is sitting undefeated at 6-0, bowl eligible for the sixth consecutive season, and ranked in the top 15.
Looking at the record alone the Utes are on a roll but playing conservative with the lead, unforced errors, mental mistakes, and some games closer than they really should have been raise red flags for the Utes as they head into the bulk of their conference schedule. Outside of the magical 2004 season, the Utes have shown a tendency over the last 20 years to lose games they should have won, and Ute fans can take comfort that despite the occasional sloppy play the Utes are undefeated and finding ways to win the close games. Utah has run the gamut of emotions this season; from a tight win in a hostile environment in the season opener against Michigan to relatively easy wins against UNLV, Utah State and Weber State to a tight, emotional contest against Air Force and a come-from-behind thriller against Oregon State.
Football is a game of continual adjustment, fine-tuning, and improvement, and while we take a look at what went right the first half of the season we will look ahead at what needs to improve – both the obvious and the overlooked.
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The Good: Obviously, being 6-0 and ranked in the top 15 nationally is good for the team and for the overall program.
Offense: The tandem backfield of Darrell Mack and Matt Asiata has lived up to billing, with the duo combining for 736 yards and 9 touchdowns while averaging 5 yards per carry. The tight ends have finally found a niche in the offense, contributing 11 catches and Colt Sampson is tied for the team lead with 3 touchdown catches.
Defense: Greg Newman has been outstanding as an undersized defensive tackle, as has Derrick Shelby after being forced into the role. Paul Kruger has been better than expected and should be getting serious consideration for national post-season awards if he finishes as well as he has played to this point. After a slow start, Mike Wright has 31 tackles in the last 3 games.
Special Teams: David Reed has been spectacular as a kick return man, nearly taking several kicks to the house. Ben Vroman is leading the nation in touchbacks – by a large margin. Vroman has 29 touchbacks on 44 kicks in five games. The advantage Utah gains throughout a game and season on field position thanks to Vroman has been severely understated. The next closest kicker is Oregon's Matt Evensen who has 18 touchbacks on 36 kicks through five games. For even greater perspective, Vroman's 29 touchbacks are more than the entire SEC combined (27). Louie Sakoda has been as reliable as ever. Another All America campaign is all but assured for the senior kicker.
The Bad: Mental mistakes have not cost the Utes a game to this point, but in conference games drive killing penalties will have more of an impact. Utah did have a season-low four penalties against Oregon State.
Offense: Inconsistency from everyone but Mack and Asiata. Brian Johnson jumps off as the major culprit because he has the ball on virtually every snap, but Johnson is not alone. 10 turnovers in 6 games for Johnson will not get the job done. Receivers have been missing blocks, running wrong routes, dropping the ball, or just not getting open downfield for their quarterback. The offensive line has been solid for the most part, but can struggle picking up the pass rush at times.
Defense: After leading the nation in pass efficiency defense and picking off 17 passes a year ago, the secondary has not been as effective despite a pass rush that has been nearly the equal of a year ago. The Utes are middle-of-the pack in pass efficiency defense and have only picked off four passes. Redzone defense has also been horrible, with the Utes allowing opponents to score 88% of the time, giving up a touchdown 75% of the time.
Special Teams: Punt returns are the obvious weakness. Terrell Cole has been great at holding on to the football, but he is not a threat. Kick coverage is very average as Utah is giving up 20 yards per rare return.
The Ugly: Turnovers. 13 turnovers in 6 games is a very alarming rate. Johnson has thrown a pick in every game and seven lost fumbles is inexcusable.
What Utah needs to improve:
The staff would most likely admit to being in the perfect situation. Even though the Utes have yet to lose, there is plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball.
Offense: Cutting down on turnovers is the top priority if the Utes wish to continue winning. Utah is taking far too many sacks as well. Johnson realizing that he can't sit in the pocket and wait for a receiver to get open will help cut down on sacks and turnovers. While he has done a good job of not taking unnecessary hits, Johnson seems too hesitant in breaking the pocket and getting down field or attacking defenders in the option game. Receivers need to improve on running the correct routes and helping their QB out in scramble situations. Fewer penalties on offense would have been here a few weeks ago, but the team has cleaned that up lately.
Defense: Not much, really. Keeping teams off the scoreboard inside the redzone tops the list with getting more interceptions close behind. The pass rush could be better outside of Kruger, especially blitzing linebackers. Utah has 13 sacks on the season, but the linebackers have contributed just 2. Kruger accounts for nearly half with 5.5 sacks. Actually, the biggest challenge for the defense might come after the bye week as they must figure out how to incorporate Kenape Eliapo back into the lineup after Shelby has played outstanding football in his place.
Special Teams: The punt team needs to do a better job of working together to pin teams inside the 10 yard line instead of the punt going into the endzone for a touchback. 5 touchbacks in 20 punts is a poor ratio, especially for a punter with the capabilities of Sakoda.
What Utah needs to continue doing:
Ride the power backs. Sharing the ball is keeping both fresh and effective. When Utah sticks with the power running game, the entire field becomes open and the passing game becomes more effective. The defense and special teams really just needs to continue playing the way they have – high energy, flying to the football and consistent play across the board – while cleaning up the few flaws that they have shown to this point in the season.