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August 16, 2011Tuesday's scrimmage was deemed to be the most important of camp, and as such expectations were high, especially after glowing reports of performances on both sides of the ball.
According to head coach Kyle Whittingham, the scrimmage was somewhat of a mixed bag.
"There was some improvement. We moved the ball pretty well offensively. But then we had a meltdown in the situational aspect of the scrimmage, which can't happen. We got in the four-minute and turned the ball over, which can't happen," observed Whittingham. "You lose ball games that way. In the two-minute, we turned the ball over. We took sacks and penalties in the two minute, so some good, some bad."
Outside of the media observation period, things apparently went ok for the offense.
"The sheer playing football aspect of it, between the 20s was pretty good, but we need to get better situationally," explained Whittingham. "We're not very good pass protecting right now. We've got to get better and that's an issue for us. That's probably our biggest issue at this time, protecting the quarterback."
A lot has been made of a dilapidated offensive line, which has suffered a rash of minor injuries throughout camp, but Whittingham makes no excuses, and he certainly hasn't altered his expectations of that unit.
"Whoever is in there has got to play. Nobody cares if you're hurt and beat up. People all over the country are hurt and beat up," Whittingham exclaimed. "You've got to be able to get it done. Whether you've got to modify your scheme, or whatever you've got to do. You've got to get it done. So there's never any excuse. You have to get it done."
The offensive line, at times, did get it done. Not in the passing game, but in the run game. Tauni Vakapuna didn't put up huge numbers, but averaged six yards per carry, rushing eight times for 48 yards as starter John White sat out the session with a hip injury. Reggie Dunn also broke off a 38 yard scamper.
The news is good as the Ute defense had been particularly adept at stopping the run, so any movement by the offensive line against the ones on defense is positive. The gains came in large part from the right side, which is Tony Bergstrom's territory.
Jordan Wynn and Dres Anderson, while acknowledging the need for improvement, felt the scrimmage went well, despite the setbacks toward the end of the scrimmage.
"I think we're pretty much right where we need to be. There's still two, two and a half weeks left to go," said Wynn. "We're going on the right track, and we just need to keep working."
"The offense made a lot of great plays, but a couple of IPs [illegal procedures]," said Anderson. "We've got to clean things up and luckily there's still time to do that. But overall we did a great job. I'm liking where we are right. We know what we have to do to clean it up. So we just need to execute that."
While Whittingham acknowledged as much, his emphasis is on what happened during the two-minute drills and during the critical game situation work.
"You have to be great in situational football and tactical football in order to win championships," said Whittingham. "We're a long ways away right now."
As is the case in any scrimmage, if one side struggled, it went well for the other side. The challenge is to try evaluate a team through camp in an attempt to determine if one side is weak, or the other side is strong.
That is precisely where the Utah football program sits with a little less than a week left in camp.
By all indications however, it looks as if the Ute defense may just be that good. Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, however, acknowledges some good things, but is still focusing on what his squad can improve upon.
"There's a lot of things we can fix. My focus was to worry about missed tackles and effort and from what we saw, we handled it and made improvements from the first scrimmage," Sitake said. "So I'm pleased with that. For the most part, I thought the guys did really well."
Though Brian Blechen has had a relatively quiet camp, he stepped up Tuesday with an interception and twenty yard return. With all the emphasis Whittingham put on the second scrimmage and the need to identify players who were consistent and could be relied upon when it counted, it seemed appropriate that Blechen made this play on this day.
With the defense racking up 12 sacks, it was the defensive secondary who got some credit Tuesday. Throughout camp, Utah quarterbacks have scrambled to buy time, been forced to make bad or tough throws, or have been sacked due to the fact that no one has been open.
"For the most part, you have to give credit to the corners and safeties for what they've done in coverage," Sitake praised. "The d-line and dbs really go hand in hand in the passing game, so I think both of them performed really well today."
While addressing some offensive concerns, Whittingham shifted gears and added some perspective to some of the offensive struggles Tuesday.
"Our defensive secondary is doing a pretty good job covering," Whittingham acknowledged. "I don't want to take anything away from them. They have done a good job in creating some coverage sacks."
"So far they appear to be a strength. They've had a couple of safeties step up and a couple of corners step up," Whittingham said of the Ute secondary. "They're playing good football back there, and quietly going about their business."
With the arrival of Keith McGill and Eric Rowe, in combination with Michael Walker, the situation at safety seems to have come together. As McGill works toward getting his conditioning back up to par and Rowe continues to learn the game and adjust to game speed, Michael Walker has been quiet, but steady all through camp. Tuesday's scrimmage saw him make a great pass break up that stood out amongst the many defensive stars.
Corner Mo Lee also stepped in front of a pass that was sure to be a pick six to end the scrimmage, but could not hold on. The play is one of a series for Lee, who seems to create opportunities for takeaways, but seems to have trouble hanging on.
The scrimmage also had some emphasis on special teams work, and as advertised, the kickoff and punt games look solid. Nick Marsh kicks consistently to inside the five yard line or back into the end zone, and the punters are booming kicks with great hang time. Coverage looks to need improvement, however. That, or the Ute returners are just that spectacular.
Likely the answer is somewhere in the middle, but freshman Charles Henderson has won the starting punt return job, with redshirt freshman Dres Anderson backing him up. Reggie Dunn is electric in the kickoff return game, and has won the starting job there. Henderson did fumble a punt in the scrimmage, which was recovered by Reggie Dunn, however.
Initial indications after scrimmage were that the kicking game had been ugly early on. Upon closer inspection of the stats, one kicker struggled, not both. Nick Marsh converted a PAT in the scrimmage, but went 0-4 in field goal attempts from distances of 51, 44, 36 and 28.
The other candidate in the race Coleman Petersen also converted a PAT as well as field goal attempts from 43, 36, 28 and 27. Petersen missed one from 26 yards out.
The Utes return to work Wednesday morning and again Wednesday night in another two a day session.