In the sad-and-sorry seconds immediately after Utah dropped a game it could have won, 20-19, on its home turf to ranked Arizona State, defensive end Trevor Reilly walked across the field, looking for all the world like he wanted to punch something or someone.
He could have started with his quarterback, who completed 6 passes in 21 attempts for 121 yards, including two touchdowns, but also two brutal interceptions on the Utes’ last two possessions.
He could have put a roundhouse on his teammates along the offensive line, of whom Kyle Whittingham said a few minutes later: "We can’t protect at all. The offensive line has to get better."
He could have pounded offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, who went far too conservative after the Utes took a 12-point lead into the fourth quarter, a span during which their offense — and that’s a kind thing to call it — collected 17 yards, one first down and zero points.
Maybe he should have smacked all of the above, figuratively speaking, of course.
Instead, when Reilly, who had nine tackles, 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss, was asked how he was doing as he walked and slumped, he just shook his head and stared down at the ground. Later, he said the defense had to do a better job of protecting a lead: "We’ve got to be tougher. Up 12 … and we let it go."
He was more wrong than right.
Whittingham bemoaned giving up the lead, but praised his defense, calling it "outstanding."
This win-turned-loss, which seemed so attainable-turned-reversible as it churned into the fourth quarter, was anything but the Ute defense’s fault. Yeah, that D gave up two touchdowns late. But that’s only a fraction of the story. The Devils had come to Rice-Eccles Stadium averaging nearly 50 points a game. ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly had been passing for more than 300 yards a game. Running back Marion Grice had been scoring two touchdowns a game.
Against Utah, the Devils got 20 points, Kelly got 144 passing yards, Grice did not score. All told, Arizona State’s potent attack gained just 293 yards.
But the Ute O gained a mere 247.
In the last two games combined, Utah’s offense has gained a total of 448 yards.
It has stunk.
Where’s Andy Ludwig, where’s Jon Hays when you need them?
But Whittingham didn’t want to bury his QB or his play-caller: "I don’t think we were too conservative. We called the game the same way [at the end], and it wasn’t very different as far as run-pass ratio. If you can’t protect your passer, then you have to try to run."
Actually, Arizona State gave up more sacks — six — than Utah did — four — for more yardage, 14 to 36. But the Sun Devils found a way to win, they found a way to move the ball just enough to win. As for the Utes, they stumbled and bumbled around offensively enough to lose.
If a coach wants to protect his quarterback by saying his offensive line didn’t give him enough protection, OK. But both areas, the two most important parts of any football team, struggled in a bad way.
Whittingham claimed Wilson is "100 percent." But he didn’t look sound, physically or mentally, dragging alternately with his throws and with his decisions. In the first half, the quarterback completed just 2 of 9 balls for 10 yards. Other than sweet back-to-back throws — one a 55-yard pass to Dres Anderson and the other a 12-yarder for a touchdown to Sean Fitzgerald — with five minutes left in the third quarter, Wilson looked as though aliens had beamed up the promising sophomore everybody saw do his work earlier in the year and replaced him with some kind of imposter.
Maybe that justifies, to some degree, Erickson’s clenching up in the closing minutes — because he was afraid his quarterback simply can no longer make the basic reads that must be read and execute the basic throws that must be executed. Wilson’s interceptions came in the last minutes, one a boneheaded attempt to throw the ball away and the other a short toss where he did not see big Will Sutton, ASU’s stellar defensive lineman, who grabbed the pass and killed the Utes’ final hopes.
The worst news for the Utes on Saturday wasn’t that they handed a win to a superior team they could have defeated. It’s that their offense has gone subterranean, burying itself deeper and deeper as the season grinds on.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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