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September 2, 2011A win.
That was about as far as Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was willing to go in summarizing his team's very first appearance as a Pac-12 team Thursday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Utes started out sluggish and the home audience of 45,311 was sluggish itself, which seemed to rub off on quarterback Jordan Wynn and the Utah offense, which could only manage to amass 101 passing yards.
"[Tonight] was less than impressive, I don't think there's anyone that would disagree with that. Offensively, we never got in a rhythm, we seemed sluggish and the tempo was not good in the first half," Whittingham acknowledged.
Though the Utes managed to put up 24 points in the first half, they stopped producing in the second, notching just one field goal for the entire second half. Even still, Whittingham surprisingly said he preferred the offensive performance in the second half to the first.
"In fact, I thought [the tempo] got better in the second half. We weren't as productive, in terms of points but I thought the energy was better, the sense of urgency was better," Whittingham explained.
Whittingham went on to explain that the last week in practice had run much more smoothly and efficiently, and the coach seemed perplexed at his team's on-field performance.
Bright spots for Whittingham's Utes included John White's 150 yards on 19 attempts, good for a 7.9 yard per carry average - which was coincidentally his career average at Harbor College in Los Angeles (Calif.) as a junior college player. White rushed for one touchdown, a ten-yard scamper early in the second quarter, and caught a five-yard pass from Wynn for the Utes' second score of the game directly in front of a delighted north end zone audience.
With a patchwork offensive line minus starting left tackle John Cullen, who should be cleared and ready to play next Saturday at USC, Whittingham was cautiously satisfied with the offensive line play, particularly recent newcomer Miles Mason, who was thrown into the fire making his first start in place of Cullen.
"Miles Mason did a pretty decent job after being called on to start on short notice," Whittingham said. "We ran the ball pretty well, but next week there's an upgrade in competition, so I don't think we can count on pushing guys around next week like we did tonight."
The two field goals (37, 44) made by Coleman Petersen were encouraging for Whittingham as well, but not enough to brighten his outlook on the offensive performance.
"It was big and we hope it continues the rest of the season. It was only one game and two kicks, but it was a great start," Whittingham said. "He hit them with confidence and they were crisp kicks. They both had plenty of distance and could have been made from several yards further."
With difficulties and concerns with the place-kicking aspect of special teams all camp long, Petersen came out aces, while punter Sean Sellwood, who had been strong all camp, flip flopped to struggle with his distance, averaging just 37.8 yards per punt and a long of 43. In contrast, Montana State's punter averaged 44.8 yards per punt with a long of 57.
Ute fans did however see what many had anticipated in that tight ends Dallin Rogers and Kendrick Moeai accounted for 10 receptions for 79 yards. Rogers, who had the evening's longest reception (11) led all receivers, catching five passes for 46 yards, while Moeai was second with 23 yards on five receptions.
With much talk of having speed at wide receiver in the off-season, speedsters Devonte Christopher, Dres Anderson and Reggie Dunn were essentially absent from the Ute offense all night. Christopher had two receptions for 11 yards, while Anderson had one rushing attempt, which went for 22 yards.
Whittingham pointed out several factors in the Utes' offensive struggles, but identified play calling as one culprit. Ultimately, however, he acknowledged, and shouldered the blame for having not taken more shots down-field, especially with the success in the running game.
"We need to do a better job of dialing those plays up, we need to take some more shots down the field," Whittingham acknowledged. "We ran the ball effectively, so we should have been able to capitalize on some of those opportunities. It starts with the coaching staff. That was our mistake in both schemes and play-calling."
While refusing to place blame on a single player, Whittingham also expressed concern over Wynn's 15-23-0 performance for 101 yards.
"[Wynn] just didn't throw the ball very well. He has to get his mechanics worked out. His shoulder's fine, he has to get more zip on the ball," said Whittingham. "He made all of the right decisions and reads so there are no excuses."
Whittingham would further clarify the mechanical challenges Wynn had through the game as throwing off the back foot and bouncing up in the pocket during his delivery. When asked whether he could attribute those errors to mental breakdown, Whittingham answered crisply, "I think so."
Special teams play, other than punting was also somewhat of a surprise, as the Utes did not suffer the same mistakes it did last season with blocked kicks, fumbled returns or allowing huge plays on coverage. Matt Martinez and Boo Anderson blocked a punt late in the first quarter, which set up a Coleman Petersen field goal.
Defensively, the Utes had mixed emotions about their performance, but ultimately felt they could have and should have done more.
"We did some things well. We gave up a couple of big plays, and made a couple of mistakes but that's stuff we can clean up," linebacker Brian Blechen said. "I think a lot of it [on defense] was maybe just first game jitters."
Defensive end Derrick Shelby probably summed it up best.
"We made plays, but we had some missed opportunities as well," Shelby stated.
The highly vaunted defensive line recorded just one sack on the night, a nine yard loss by defensive end Derrick Shelby. The defense managed just one more sack in the game, which came in the fourth quarter by corner Ryan Lacy, who recorded a career-high eight tackles on the night. True freshman safety Eric Rowe also had a nice night defensively, notching nine tackles in his first game.
Of course, the story isn't complete without talking about safety turned linebacker Brian Blechen's two interceptions, which set up the Utes' first score of the night.
"We benefitted from a couple of big plays by Brian Blechen," said Whittingham. "Those two interceptions were huge."
Indeed, they were as both halted Montana State as the first provided a huge momentum swing after a very poor first possession by the Ute offense, and had the Bobcats starting to pick up the pace on theirs. The second, stopped another run by the Bobcats as they built confidence in stopping Wynn and the Utah offense for most of the second half.
Despite giving up a handful of big plays, the Ute defense held Montana State quarterback Denarius McGhee in check. McGhee passed for 183 yards, padded by a "Utah pass" which went for 38 yards and rushed for only 27.
"McGhee is a very mobile playmaker, but we were able to corral him most of the night," Shelby said.
With few positives to take away from the home opener, Whittingham predicted unapologetically that his team would win few, if any games in the Pac-12 should it continue playing at this level. It will be up to Whittingham and his staff to work out the kinks with the Pac-12 opener next week at USC looming ahead.