Utah running back Joe Williams (28) tries to avoid a tackle by UCLA defensive back Tahaan Goodman, left, in the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015 in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Kim Raff)
Kim Raff
November 23, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Things keep getting worse for the Utah football program.

The Utes lost the centerpiece of their offense when Devontae Booker had knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus last week.

Then Utah dropped out of contention for a Pac-12 title with a 17-9 loss to UCLA and subsequently fell out of the AP poll despite being ranked No. 3 in the country a month ago.

Now the Utes (8-3, 5-3) are without leading receiver Britain Covey, who suffered a leg injury Saturday. Coach Kyle Whittingham didn't know if he would miss a bowl game because it's not set yet.

The excitement of being one of the top teams in the country with a chance of playing in the College Football Playoff is gone, but Whittingham is still happy with the season.

''To finish as (Pac-12 South) co-champions and potentially 10-game win season, that's the high-water mark since we've been in the conference,'' Whittingham said. ''This is a big step forward if we can accomplish some things down the road. Either way we're sitting at 8-3 and tied for first. It's incremental progress for our program.''

UCLA (8-3, 5-3) and USC (7-4, 5-3) will play Saturday with a spot in the conference title game on the line. Both hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with Utah.

The Utes, meanwhile, face Colorado (4-8, 1-7) without their top running back and receiver. Booker is third in school history with 2,773 yards rushing and Covey leads the team this season in receptions (41), receiving yards (518) and touchdown catches (4).

The Utes plugged in Joe Williams at running back and he rushed for 121 yards on 26 carries. But Utah struggled to get receivers open - a season-long issue - and Covey was, arguably, the best route-runner on the team. Whittingham said junior Delshawn McClellon will step in as the slot receiver in place of Covey.

''You just move on,'' Whittingham said. ''... It's just next man up. There's really no way you can adjust other than next guy up's got to pick up the slack as well as everybody around them upping their level of play. Everybody do their part.''

Quarterback Travis Wilson was a little more involved in the run game last week, rushing for 67 yards on 18 carries while being more aggressive with the read-option. Utah finished with 197 rushing yards, but passed for just 110.

Whittingham wouldn't say if that's a permanent tweak to help account for the loss of Booker, but said the receivers have to get more separation for the pass game to work.

''To a certain extent you can scheme a little bit for that,'' Whittingham said. ''We just weren't on our game. We weren't very sharp. A lot of the routes weren't as crisp as they needed to be, and precise.

''Yeah, there's things we need to look at in the passing game scheme and try to uncover guys a little bit better.''

Consistency with the pass game, however, has been an issue all year. The Utes rank No. 11 in the Pac-12 and No. 98 in the country with 196.5 passing yards per game. It's questionable whether that can be fixed 12 games into a season, without the team's top two pass-catchers and against opponents that know the Utes are short-handed. Booker had 37 receptions to rank No. 2 on the team. McClellon, who has clocked a 4.39 40-yard dash, has one catch this year and eight total in three years.

Wilson said he takes it as a personal challenge to help pick up the slack, ''to a certain extent,'' but, won't try to put everything on his own shoulders.

''We're definitely capable of fixing the pass game,'' Wilson said. ''We just have to make sure everybody's on the same page with the routes and where the ball's going and all that. I have to make the throws and we have to get some separation from the DBs.''

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