Utah coach Kyle Whittingham stuck to the coaching handbook this week and opted against publicly naming a starting quarterback headed into Thursday night’s game at Oregon State.
“It's not a huge strategic move,” he said. “But why tip your hand if you don't have to? And we don't have to.”
Except it’s hard to believe there’s much of a decision to make. Not after what happened in Utah’s past two games.
In a 28-27 loss to Washington State on Sept. 27, Wilson failed to lead the Utes into the red zone, and Whittingham later admitted that, in hindsight, Thompson “should have probably gotten a couple series.” Those comments are partially why it came as no surprise when Wilson got the hook after starting with three consecutive three-and-outs at then-No. 8 UCLA the following week. And after Thompson, an Oklahoma transfer, went on to lead Utah to a 30-28 win and into the AP Top 25 for the first time since joining the Pac-12, it’s hard to find logic that points back to Wilson.
Regardless, Oregon State coach Mike Riley said the Beavers will be prepared for either guy -- which likely would have been the case even if Whittingham went public with his decision.
“Obviously, we have to prepare for both if they’re not going to name the starter, and they certainly have two good players to pick from,” Riley said. “We played against Travis last year, and he gave us all sorts of fits and [Thompson] has come in there and done a nice job, so probably a good problem for Utah to deal with.”
In Oregon State’s 51-48 overtime win against Utah last season, Wilson completed 19 of 33 passes for 279 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions and ran for 142 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries.
Despite what Wilson did against the Beavers in that game, it’s what Thompson can do with his legs that could ultimately give him the edge. By no means did he set the world on fire against UCLA, but he carried 19 times for 83 yards to go along with a 10 for 13 passing night with 95 yards, a touchdown and no picks.
Riley is no stranger to dealing with unsettled quarterback situations. He benched returning starter Ryan Katz in favor of Sean Mannion early in the 2011 season, and after Mannion went down with an injury the next year, he split time with Cody Vaz when he returned. Then the duo waged a long quarterback competition before Mannion emerged at the end of training camp last season.
“We were into that about a year and a half ago, and it’s a little bit challenging, probably,” Riley said. “Coaches trying to decide what’s best to do and players are up in the air a little bit, but I think in the bigger picture, the competition creates the best in people most of the time and you want to find that out at that position.”
Utah has been in a similar situation to what it'll be facing Thursday, too, just not for how it relates to quarterbacks. Last fall, the Utes beat No. 5 Stanford 27-21 to move to 4-2, but five straight losses followed, taking them out of the bowl picture.
"We have had that conversation, how we didn't capitalize on a big win last year vs. Stanford," Whittingham said. "The timing of the game is almost identical -- I think Stanford was in Week 6 last year, rather than Week 5, which the UCLA game was. It's a one-game-at-a-time mentality, but we hope to have a better result throughout the second half of the season than we did last year."