A week after Utah coaches and players said they found the swagger that went missing the entire month of October, the Utes took what has become a familiar long, quiet walk into the locker room in the south end zone in a mostly-emptied-out Rice-Eccles Stadium.
A step forward against undermanned UCLA was followed by another step back against No. 19 Washington State, no doubt motivated a night after the Cougars witnessed bitter rival and former Pac-12 front-runner Washington upset in the Bay Area against Stanford.
Now 5-5, the Utes have two more shots at one win to be playing in December.
Next up: an evening showdown in Seattle against the Huskies, who Utah coach Kyle Whittingham guaranteed will be “ticked off” following their loss at Stanford.
“We’re fully aware we’ve got to find a win,” Whittingham said.
The 4-0 September start is a very distant memory.
And after yet another turnover-filled outing, it’s clear the growing pains in this new offense with young talent very well may be the story of the season. Including Utah’s last-ditch Hail Mary attempt, the Utes handed the ball to the Cougars seven times at home.
Sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley accounted for four turnovers (three interceptions, one fumble), and thanks to a herculean effort by a shorthanded Utah defense, had a couple of shots late to cap an improbable comeback.
“We’re committed to Tyler,” Whittingham said. “He’s a competitive guy. He made some plays out there. He certainly wishes he had some of those back. He’s a fierce competitor. A tremendous athlete. There have been some growing pains this year, there’s no doubt about it.”
In his postgame interview, Huntley once again said mental mistakes are costing Utah and are playing a role in slow starts to games.
“When we go back and watch film, we see that just one thing can cause us havoc in one play,” he said. “We just know that we’ve got a lot of things to work on. We’re still a great team. We tell each other we know we’re good and we’ve just got to stop making mistakes.”
On top of all that, the upcoming task promises to be a mighty one.
Utah was without three of its leading tacklers Saturday against Wazzu in safety Chase Hansen, linebacker Sunia Tauteoli and safety Marquise Blair, who suffered a season-ending injury against UCLA. Senior defensive end Kylie Fitts left the game in the first half with an injury and didn’t return. Sophomore defensive back Julian Blackmon took a knock to the right knee and briefly left before returning.
And that’s just defense.
Leading receiver Darren Carrington II missed his first game of the season. Running back Zack Moss had to leave the game only to return and gut it out. Whittingham confirmed postgame Moss is nicked up. Utah was eventually down to its fourth right guard on the offensive line, too, as Johnny Capra stepped in.
Whittingham estimates injury reports on at least 8-to-10 players are needed before practice commences for Washington.
So, the Utes, bruised and battered, have two games left to get one win.
“For sure,” Huntley said, “we’re going to get to a bowl game.”
“Hey man, we’ve been close so many times, we can almost taste it,” left tackle Jackson Barton said. “I have a good feeling we’re going to get to that bowl eligibility.”