One by one, realistically starting with trying to win the Pac-12 South Division, Utah’s goals as a football team were squashed before they legitimately began.
A four-game losing streak spread over the entire month of October has a way of shattering the hope for a special season. The only remaining goal was to reach the minimum number of wins required to become bowl eligible.
Utah’s first shot at reaching six wins ended up being strike one, as the Utes trailed the entire game in losing to Washington State 33-25 on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. With two games left to play, they remain stuck on five wins.
“We’re fully aware that we’ve got to find away in these two games to get these seniors to a bowl game,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
With a trip to Seattle to play Washington next week, Utah’s second bid to reach bowl eligibility likely will end in strike two. Assuming a loss to the Huskies, which certainly is not a lock, Utah’s final game of the season will be at home against Colorado, with both teams standing at 5-5 currently.
Two bitter rivals ending the regular season with bowl eligibility at stake for both of them – exactly the way it should be. Insert sarcasm here.
“For sure,” said quarterback Tyler Huntley, “we’re going to get to a bowl game.”
But before Utah can worry about making a fourth consecutive bowl, something has got to change with the offense. This loss rests squarely on the offense, which committed seven turnovers and often retreated toward its own goal line.
In Utah’s prior two losses, against Arizona State and Oregon, both sides of the ball deserved equal blame. The finger points in one direction this time.
The frustrating part is for all of its struggles, Utah twice was still down only eight points in the fourth quarter. The offense clicked at times during the game, but at other parts was its own worst enemy.
Inconsistency, combined with the turnovers, led to Utah losing a winnable game. It is the same story, different verse, as the Utes have now lost three games but a combined 12 points.
“We’ve been close so many times,” said offensive lineman Jackson Barton. “We can almost taste it. But I have a good feeling we’re going to get to that bowl eligibility.”
Adding to the pain, Utah’s defense was outstanding most of the game. The pass-crazy Cougars threw the ball 69 times, but none of Luke Falk’s receivers had more than 64 yards in receptions.
The defense played its best game of the season, not counting last week’s performance against a bruised and battered UCLA team that was without star quarterback Josh Rosen. Considering the Utes were without safety Chance Hansen and linebacker Sunia Touteoli and lost three starters – cornerbacks Casey Hughes and Julian Blackmon and defensive end Kylie Fitts – during the game, the defensive effort was outstanding.
With Falk, who set the Pac-12 record with 118 career touchdown passes, Washington State (9-3, 6-2) has the best passing attack in the Pac-12. The Cougars scored on seven trips into the red zone, but only got three touchdowns.
Washington State had a chance to put away the Utes early but had to settle for one touchdown and two field goals in the first quarter.
“It could have easily got out of hand in the first quarter,” said Whittingham. “Our red zone defense was outstanding.”
On two possessions preceding Erik Powell’s field goals, the Cougars managed to gain a total of 4 yards Powell’s third field goal was entirely set up on a horrible pass by Huntley that was intercepted on the offense’s first play from the scrimmage of the third quarter.
Continuing its fourth consecutive slow start, Utah’s offense was a mess in the first quarter. On three straight possessions, the Utes committed turnovers on two fumbles and an interception. At one point, the offense faced a fourth-and-32 backed up in its own end.
“It was just mental mistakes,” Huntley said of another slow start. “That’s all I could tell you. I don’t know.”
A sophomore in his first season as a starter, Huntley continues to be a mixture of maddening and magnificent. He had three interceptions but also threw for 305 yards and rushed for 90 yards, although seven Washington State sacks reduced his actual yards gained on the ground almost in half.
For better or worse, the Utes are not changing quarterbacks at this point in the season.
“He’s a fierce competitor and a tremendous athlete,” Whittingham said. “There have been some growing pains, no doubt about it.”