Rather than focus on the negatives, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham chose to dwell on the positives that came out of the Utes’ 34-27 loss to No. 12 UCLA Thursday night.
That the Utes even had a chance to beat one of the nation’s top teams in the final minutes was an encouraging sign to the coach ,whose team next faces an even greater test in the form of No. 5 Stanford.
No. 5 Stanford at Utah
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"We have to keep our heads up and not feel sorry for ourselves and keep fighting," Whittingham said. "That is the one thing this team does. They have character and resiliency and fight to the bitter end."
While the six interceptions thrown by quarterback Travis Wilson was undoubtably the most glaring reason the Utes lost to the Bruins, Whittingham instead said he was heartened by the defensive effort he saw.
Utah’s defense, which struggled to contain Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, looked much better against UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley — even if it surrendered the Bruin QB’s game-clinching TD run late in the game.
The Bruins scored just 10 points off Wilson’s five second-half interceptions and finished with just 404 total yards — 210 less than the nation’s second-best offense was averaging.
Few probably imagined the Utes could have delivered such a defensive performance just a few weeks after the Utes’ secondary was picked apart by Utah State and then Oregon State.
"Our secondary is starting to progress and evolve into a pretty good secondary," Whittingham said. "They did miss a few tackles, but Mike Honeycutt, Keith McGill and the other guys are improving."
If there was one negative that came out of the game defensively, it was an injury to cornerback Davion Orphey, who is one of Utah’s faster defenders.
Whittingham said he wasn’t sure what Orphey’s status will be against the Cardinal, who are averaging 221.3 yards passing and 218.0 yards rushing.
More concerning might be the status of Wilson, who has thrown nine interceptions against Pac-12 competition this year.
Just as he did following Utah’s 51-48 loss to Oregon State, Whittingham said not all of the interceptions could be blamed on Wilson.
"He needs to keep his head up," Whittingham said. "He has played great football for us this year. I know a few interceptions were just a fluke, interceptions where the ball was tipped, so they weren’t all on Travis. He is a tough kid, he will come back and be ready to compete."
Wilson’s struggles overshadowed another issue for the Utes: an inconsistent run game.
Starter Bubba Poole had five carries for 26 years before he was replaced by Kelvin York, who finished with 13 carries for 51 yards before he was replaced by Lucky Radley, who produced 25 yards on seven carries.
Whittingham said all of the backs were healthy and the changes were made because the Utes were searching for a back who could produce.
Unfortunately the Utes couldn’t find an effective answer and suffered yet another tough Pac-12 loss.
Still, the Utes remain upbeat, according to receiver Dres Anderson.
"That we can lose the turnover margin and still be in the game says something about the team and the heart," he said. "But we still have to find ways to make plays at the end."
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