Monson: Utes have hope, still, even after a most difficult defeat

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Garett Bolles signs a football as the University of Utah hosts Stanford, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City Saturday October 7, 2017.

In a game that very well could have been an acceleration point for Utah football, the Utes couldn’t quite do what was required to earn that added speed hurtling into the crunch of their Pac-12 season.

• Play black-and-blue football throughout.

• Be tough and mean and nasty up front throughout.

• Beat the Cardinal throughout.

At the end, the final numbers on the board — Stanford 23, Utah 20 — that shined into the late darkness on Saturday night were absorbed by Kyle Whittingham and his players as they left the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium, suffering defeat in all its full-bodied devastation.

“We didn’t do enough good things to win that game,“ Whittingham said, afterward. “ … We hung in there, but …”


They suffered because they could not take advantage of doing what they had to do — stop Stanford’s major threat, Bryce Love. They succeeded early, and then, they failed. Love scored on a 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, giving the Cardinal a 10-point lead. It was the eighth time Love at Stanford had run for a TD from 50 or more yards out.

There was no secret about the Utes’ need here. Facing a running back who was averaging 11.1 yards a carry and who already had gained more than a thousand yards in five previous games, the barriers the Utes put up were noble, but, ultimately and simply, not enough. Love finished with 152 yards. All told, Stanford rushed for 196 yards.

And the No. 1 run defense in the Pac-12 found no reason to feel any kind of satisfaction from the result.

For the second straight year, the Utes started their season 4-0 before feeling the bite of their first loss. In the two seasons before that, they were 6-0 and 3-0. They managed to stay competitive in the Pac-12 South in each of those years until the troubles of November did them in.

The positive news that remained after Saturday night’s net negative: There’s hope for them, still.

Stanford’s offense, as it turned out, was hardly dependent solely on Love and the ground game, though, heretofore it had gained 400 more yards rushing than passing. Utah’s rugged front seven had to shove the issue, forcing the Cardinal to the air more often than was normal for them.

Problem was, Stanford quarterbacks Keller Chryst and K.J. Costello were up to the task, completing passes that hurt the Utes, keeping them slightly off-kilter.

So both ends of the Utah defense were attacked and made susceptible.

When the Utes had the ball, they found some comfort in Troy Taylor’s more prescribed multiple looks, utilizing the pass and the run, even in the ongoing absence of Tyler Huntley, Utah’s injured starting quarterback. Instead, Troy Williams, last year’s starter, stepped in — as he did two weeks ago against Arizona — and hit some open targets, although he was intercepted twice in the last quarter.

“I’ve just got to play better,” Williams said. He completed 20 of 39 passes for 238 yards. He had one TD pass, along with the two picks.

Without Huntley’s athleticism and mobility — he is the Utes’ best rusher this season — Utah’s more traditional running attack had to emerge. Zack Moss attempted the feat, gaining 79 yards, and Devonta’e Henry-Cole got 55. The big’uns up ahead of him, who had fallen short more than any other unit for the Utes, created some space, graded some road. But not enough for a win.

“We just got to be better,” Moss said, echoing his quarterback.

What it all meant for the Utes is this: They must now restart momentum for a legitimate shot at the South Division title.

And they can, especially if Huntley, as Whittingham suggested is possible, finds a way to get healthy enough to return to action.

There’s much work left undone. And that in the comprehensive may be a burdensome notion pushed to the back of their minds, what with more immediate concerns straight ahead — USC on Saturday at the Coliseum. If past experience has taught them anything, it should have taught them that promise beckons, as it has at this juncture previously. Even in a loss, that has not been extinguished.

USC will be huge.

The Utes have accomplished a few things, and suffered some setbacks, in their seven seasons in the Pac-12, but they never have defeated the Trojans in Los Angeles. Their first game in the league in 2011 was against USC — a 23-14 defeat — on its home field. That started their string of difficulties there. In 2013, the count was 19-3. In 2015, it was 42-24.

Now, having taken their first defeat of this season, they get their fourth shot on the road against USC, with opportunity still in the balance.

“We got to keep our heads up,” Whittingham said. “… We have to keep working, keep fighting.”

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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