SALT LAKE CITY — At 2-4 overall and 0-3 in Pac-12, the Utah Utes are obviously far from satisfied with where they sit at the midway point of the season.
More than a month has passed since their last victory, and the Utes head to No. 8 Oregon State this Saturday with three straight setbacks.
Utah has faced plenty of adversity over the first six games. Suspensions, injuries and lingering position battles are among the challenges that have surfaced along the way.
"It either makes you stronger or kills you," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the adversity. "We'll find out. Right now, I'm still breathing, but we'll see what happens."
The Utes enter the second half of the season with victories over Northern Colorado (41-0) and BYU (24-21), as well as setbacks against Utah State (27-20, OT), Arizona State (37-7), USC (38-28) and UCLA (21-14).
Despite the current slide, Whittingham says that progress is being made.
"From day one I think we've come a ways. We've still got a ways to go, but I think we're a much better football team now than we were on the opening weekend — at least I hope we are," he said, adding that a lot of young players are progressing. "I think we've made strides in a lot of areas. But we still have a lot of deficiencies that we're working on every day."
Whittingham, however, declined to give a midseason evaluation of the program.
"I don't evaluate week-to-week or in segments," he said. "I just evaluate the season as a whole, same with the coaches. We evaluate everything after the season."
OFFENSE: Brian Johnson's first season as offensive coordinator has been quite a challenge thus far. The Utes have struggled to pick up yardage and put points on the board.
"We've got a long ways to go. We obviously haven't been very productive through six games," Johnson said. "We've got six games to turn it around. I believe in the leadership on this team and in this program to get that done."
Johnson added that everyone is working extremely hard to put it together on Saturdays. Depth chart issues are solidifying along the offensive line and at quarterback, where true freshman Travis Wilson is preparing for his second career start after moving ahead of senior Jon Hays in the pecking order. Hays took the top spot when Jordan Wynn was forced to retire after a shoulder injury in the second game of the season.
Other adversity includes an ankle injury that kept senior running back John White out of the BYU game and slowed his progress thereafter.
Johnson, though, isn't using the obstacles as excuses.
"You've got to continue to fight and understand that the show must go on as they say. Regardless of what's taken place, we've got to come out here and be productive," he said. "That's on me to get that done. I've got to make sure we've got our guys ready to play Saturday night."
As for a bright spot over the first six games, Johnson pointed to young guys like Wilson who he said have gotten better each and every day.
On the negative side of things, Johnson said that seeing Wynn have to retire because of injury was really hard. It's part of what Johnson called a "ton of not-so-bright spots" that the offense has faced this season — including a lack of production on the field.
"Life isn't always easy and it hands you stuff," Johnson said. "But the true test is how you respond to it. We have the opportunity to respond, and it has to be the right way."
DEFENSE: Things haven't gone as expected. Although senior defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is well on his way to All-America honors, Utah's defense has been surprisingly generous at times. Opponents have converted on 34 third-down situations. The Utes, though, do lead the nation with 13 forced fumbles.
"I still think we can play better," defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said. "If you asked me last year, I probably would have said the same thing, too, and the year before that and the year before that."
The bottom line, he continued, is the defense is a lot better than how it played over the first six games of the season.
"I think our guys are playing with extreme effort and I love the way that they take the field. We've just got to play smarter and make more plays," Sitake said. "I'm really disappointed that we just haven't made enough sacks, we haven't made enough impact plays and we haven't created enough turnovers."
Utah has recorded 13 sacks, thus far, and only two interceptions.
"We need to see that improve the second half of the season," Sitake said. "In order for us to be successful as a team we really feel like as a defense we have to make more plays. It's not really that far out of our realm, rather just our guys doing their job and really taking advantage of the opportunities that come their way."
Sitake expects things to improve with a consistent line-up on the field. Junior safety Brian Blechen missed the first three games of the season for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Senior cornerback Reggie Topps was held out of the season opener. A foot injury has slowed junior defensive end Joe Kruger, keeping him out of the loss to ASU. Sorting out a deep linebacker corps has also taken a toll on the defense, as has facing so many spread attacks early on.
"We've had to lean on our depth," Sitake said before noting that his highs and lows involve victories. The high being Utah's last win and low being the current losing skid.
"Having to deal with defeat is not good, especially when you know you're better than what you've been showing," Sitake said. "As a team, I know that's how we feel. As a defense, that's definitely how we feel right now."
Utes on the air
Utah (2-4, 0-3)
at Oregon State (5-0, 3-0)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
Reser Stadium, Corvallis, Oregon
TV: ESPN2 Radio: 700AMMidway marks
Where Utah football ranks nationally after six games.
Rushing: 112th (100 ypg)
Passing: 90th (202.67 ypg)
Pass efficiency: 62nd (132.70 rating)
Total offense: 114th (302.67 ypg)
Scoring offense: 97th (22.33 ppg)
Rushing: 34th (124.17 ypg)
Passing: 62nd (226.50 ypg)
Pass efficiency: 99th (132.70 rating)
Total defense: 35th (350.67 ypg)
Scoring defense: 49th (24 ppg)Midway mark
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