Of the 13 losses the Utah Utes have endured in the Pac-12, Thursday’s 34-27 defeat to the No. 12 UCLA Bruins at Rice-Eccles Stadium had to hurt the most.
Utah (3-2, 0-2), desperate to reverse its struggling fortunes in league play, came oh-so-close to getting the headline-grabbing, breakthrough victory it wanted.
Instead, the Utes were left with a bitter loss that was winnable to the end despite six interceptions thrown by Utah quarterback Travis Wilson.
“I’m proud of the way our guys played,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “They played exceptionally hard, they didn’t play good the entire time, obviously, but we hung in there. Minus-five in the turnover margin pretty much says it all when you play a team the caliber of UCLA. You turn it over six times and gain one, you’re not going to win.”
The Utes, who are 7-13 against Pac-12 opponents since joining the league, started their first two seasons 0-4 in conference play.
Matching that poor start is conceivable for the Utes, who are playing their toughest league schedule to date, as road games against Arizona and USC follow next week’s contest against No. 5 Stanford.
Facing that schedule alone is bad enough for a Utah team still trying to find its way in the Pac-12, but making it worse is the status of their quarterback, whose confidence likely was shaken by his performance against the Bruins (4-0, 1-0).
Wilson, who played so well in Utah’s previous games, had his worst game of his career against the Bruins, finishing with six interceptions.
After threading defenders to throw two touchdown passes in the first half, Wilson had five passes intercepted in the second half.
Whittingham said not all the interceptions were Wilson’s fault, noting some came off tipped passes, but the quarterback took responsibility for the errors.
“I have to make sure I clean that up and it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
His fourth interception came when Utah had the ball with 4:23 remaining and trailed 27-24.
In prime position to lead the Utes on a comeback upset, Wilson instead let a pass fly that was intercepted by UCLA’s Anthony Jefferson. Three plays later, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley got loose on a 36-yard touchdown run to put the Bruins ahead 34-24.
Still, the Utes had a chance. Andy Phillips, who kicked a 44-yard field goal earlier in the game, connected on a 37-yard field goal on Utah’s next possession to cut UCLA’s lead to 34-27 with 1:59 remaining.
Utah successfully recovered an onside kick on their 49-yard line, setting up the possibility of an improbable comeback. The Utes advanced to UCLA’s 23-yard line, but the drive ended there with a pass by Wilson getting picked off by UCLA linebacker Myles Jack.
Wilson finished the night 22 of 44 for 288 yards, while UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley was 17 of 27 for 211 yards and a touchdown.
What had to make the loss so painful for the Utes was if Wilson had had just an average night, the Utes likely would have won, given the way the defense played.
Utah gave up just 20 yards and one first down in the third quarter, despite Wilson’s three interceptions in the period. UCLA finished with 404 yards of total offense to Utah’s 387.
“I thought we dominated the second half with our defense, and that was encouraging,” Whittingham said. “They are a good football team, and for us to completely control defensively like we did, that was a positive. It was good to see.”
The Utes’ big defensive play came with 13:23 remaining when Utah’s pressure forced Hundley to make a poor throw. The ball was scooped up by cornerback Keith McGill, who returned it 19 yards to make it 24-24.
That play gave Utah the glimmer of hope it needed while UCLA tried to hang on.
With UCLA star running back Jordan James sidelined for the second half with an injury, UCLA was forced to rely on Hundley and backup running back Paul Perkins to orchestrate the win.
And that they did, leading the Bruins on a 13-play, 48-yard drive that culminated in a 47-yard field goal by Ka’imi Fairbairn to put the Bruins up 27-24 with 8:28 remaining.
In the drive, Perkins rushed five times for 36 of his 92 total yards to keep the chains and clock moving.
Hundley’s key plays came on third downs.
On a third-and-8, he threw a nine-yard pass to Devin Lucien for a first down on Utah’s 42-yard line.
Then, on third-and-21, he scrambled seven yards to get the Bruins in field goal range.
The third down conversions were reminiscent of the third down plays in which he burned the Utes last year in UCLA’s 21-14 win.
Whittingham said earlier in the week the Utes needed to improve their defense in such situations.
Unfortunately for the Utes, the offensive mistakes simply gave Hundley too many chances to beat them, and beat them he did.
No. 12 UCLA at Utah
Thursday, 8 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports 1