Pac-12 football coaches didn’t really make a bunch of offseason hires based on Washington State’s stunning loss to an FCS school last year.
To the Cougars, it might seem like it.
For the second time in five weeks, the Wazzu defense is preparing to face a first-year offensive coordinator hired away from Eastern Washington, whose 45-42 upset at Pullman ruined the start of the Cougs’ 2016 season.
Troy Taylor, a former California Bears quarterback who called offensive plays last season for EWU, is trying to transport some of the Eagles’ innovative spread concepts this year to a Utah offense steeped in more traditional ideas.
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The Utes (5-4, 2-4) play the No. 19 Cougars (8-2, 5-2) and try to reach bowl-eligibility Saturday (2:30 p.m. Pacific, Pac-12 Networks) at Salt Lake City.
The Cougs can only hope they fare better against Taylor than they did against his boss at Eastern, Beau Baldwin, the first-year Cal offensive coordinator who last month helped the Bears whack Wazzu 37-3 at Berkeley, Calif.
That outcome was even more surprising than Baldwin’s conquest in Pullman last year as EWU head coach. All in all, Baldwin’s offense at Cal is still a work in progress. So is Taylor’s at Utah.
The Utes snapped a four-game losing streak last week with a 48-17 home win over a UCLA team that ranks last in Pac-12 defense and was missing Josh Rosen. That was the first time Utah had produced more than 27 points since September.
It was an encouraging sign for 13th-year head coach Kyle Whittingham.
“That is what I envision we are supposed to look like, excluding the first quarter,” he said of the Utes’ offense. “The first quarter was a rough start, but once we got into a rhythm we moved the ball, made explosive plays, ran the football with physicality and efficiency, and we protected the ball, with zero turnovers.”
A defensive-minded boss whose stout, physical teams have often lacked offensive pizzazz, Whittingham has grown increasingly receptive to spread ideas in recent years. Last December, at the same time coaching luminary Dennis Erickson retired from his late-career gig as Utah’s running-backs coach, Whittingham unloaded offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick as well.
He replaced him with Taylor, one of Cal’s best quarterbacks of recent decades. His career path had included a couple of seasons as a New York Jets QB, a stint as a Cal assistant coach, some color commentary on the Bears’ radio broadcasts and a quixotic retreat into high-school coaching. Along the way he helped groom Jake Browning into the quarterback he is today for Washington. Taylor spent only one season as co-offensive coordinator at Eastern before getting the Utah job.
It didn’t take him long to shake things up. In preseason camp he stunned Utah fans by demoting quarterback Troy Williams, who had led the Utes to a 9-4 season last year, and replacing him with sophomore Tyler Huntley.
But the move fit Taylor’s M.O. Huntley is a dual-threat QB not unlike Gage Gubrud, the EWU quarterback whose running ability helped bring down Wazzu. Huntley is averaging 54 rushing yards a game this season and has thrown for 12 touchdowns against six interceptions. His favorite receiver is Darren Carrington, who fled to Utah after getting kicked off the Oregon team.
Huntley missed two-plus midseason games with a shoulder injury, no small factor in the Utes’ recent losing streak.
Another factor: The Utes aren’t quite themselves on defense. They sorely miss defensive end Hunter Dimick, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and their sack production has plummeted. It’s as if fate is exacting a price for the Utes’ attempt to modernize their offense.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Whittingham said.
More valuable than ever have been punter Mitch Wishnowsky, the reigning Ray Guy Award winner,and kicker Matt Gay, who leads the nation with 21 field goals.
Also helpful have been Utah’s nine senior starters, especially during the four-straight skid.
“If you have outstanding leaders which we do, particularly in the senior class, that is the biggest factor in getting things turned back around,” Whittingham said. “All through those struggles, never once did we point fingers. Not once did the practice effort and focus drop off. Those are the telltale signs if something is in dire straits.”
Beating the Cougars would be a telltale sign of progress.