Turnovers prove too much to overcome for Utes in loss to Washington State

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Marching Utes on the field as the University of Utah hosts Washington State, NCAA football in Salt Lake City, Saturday November 11, 2017.

The Utes rolled the dice one too many times by digging a hole with what coach Kyle Whittingham described as a “disaster” of a first quarter on offense.

While Utah rallied last Friday night for a win against UCLA, it couldn’t overcome three first-quarter turnovers and a total of seven in the game, losing for the fifth time in its past six games, 33-25 at the hands of 19th-ranked Washington State on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The Utes finished with a 367-338 edge in total yards on offense, but the havoc plays that were once the trademark of the Utes defense seemed piled up in favor of Washington State instead.

“That is a good offense, and you hold them to that type of yardage and you expect to win,” Whittingham said. “However, the most important stat in football other than the final score is the turnover margin. We were on the wrong end of that by a long shot. I was proud of the way our guys hung in there. As bad as it was, we had a chance to put the game into overtime at the end there.”

The Cougars (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) and star senior quarterback Luke Falk, a Logan High School graduate, kept the pressure on the Utes defense. Falk, who broke the Pac-12 all-time record for passing touchdowns on Saturday, was 40 of 69 for 311 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions.

But the Utes defense held up solidly without starting safeties Marquise Blair, Chase Hansen and starting linebacker Sunia Tauteoli. The Cougars started five possessions in Utah territory, but only scored touchdowns on two of the drives; the other three drives resulted in two field goals and a missed field goal.

Meanwhile, the Utes offense was forced into helter-skelter mode early. The Cougars sacked Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (305 yards passing, 51 yards rushing) seven times, three of them by Hercules Mata’afa. They forced the Utes into four interceptions and four fumbles — three recovered by the Cougars.

The offense played without star wide receiver Darren Carrington II due to an leg injury, and starting right guard Jordan Agasiva sat out his third straight game with a foot/ankle injury.

“We always keep a positive attitude,” said wide receiver Demari Simpkins, who had 99 yards receiving. “It just came to the point where we didn’t make plays when we were supposed to, and we had too many turnovers.”

For the second consecutive week, the Utes offense struggled in the first quarter. They managed 47 yards on 17 plays in the first 15 minutes, and committed more turnovers (three) than completed passes (two).

The first two turnovers — a fumble at the end of a 20-yard catch and run by Simpkins, and a Huntley interception as he tried to throw back against the grain while rolling to his right — gave the Cougars a 10-0 lead.

Despite the dreadful stretches, offensively, the Utes were within 26-18 with 13:42 remaining in the fourth quarter after Zack Moss’ second touchdown run of the game and a 2-point conversion pass from Huntley to senior tight end Siale Fakailoatonga. And the Utes had the ball back after forcing a stop, but a Moss fumble led to a 6-yard touchdown pass from Falk to extend Washington State’s lead to 33-18.

The Utes cut the lead down to 33-25 with 6:19 remaining on a Huntley TD pass to Raelon Singleton, and Kenric Young intercepted a Falk pass with 3:03 left ­— but the Utes final two possessions ended with interceptions.

“It show you that we’re a unique team,” Huntley said of the Utes having a chance to win despite the turnovers. “We got a lot of things to work on, but Wazzu did a good job of coming up with a win.”