Kragthorpe: Struggles on offensive line cost Utes chance at victory

(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.

Somehow, having already lost six turnovers and allowed seven sacks, the Utah Utes gave themselves one more chance to do something truly memorable this season.

Quarterback Tyler Huntley scrambled into Washington State territory with seven seconds left, then watched backup QB Troy Williams dodge the rush and lob a pass into the end zone from around midfield. Just for the sake of punctuation, the Cougars intercepted the ball.

How else could this game have ended?

Actually, the Utes can think of any number of alternate finishes, other than No. 19 WSU’s 33-25 victory Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Subtract any of those takeaways, including a fumble and interception in the fourth quarter when they trailed by eight points, and the Utes may have produced their biggest breakthrough of the year. Instead, Utah’s program remains known for experimenting with various ways to end up disappointed in November.

And now this season devoid of much drama will get mildly interesting. Either the Utes (5-5) will upset Washington in Seattle next weekend or beat Colorado in a series marked by tight games — or stay home for the bowl season.

The latest episode was a case of the Utes’ coming closer than many fans pictured in the end, judging by a mostly empty stadium as Williams launched his last pass in the chill of a November evening.

Thanks to a defense that responded to all kinds of trouble, the Utes were a miraculous touchdown and 2-point conversion from forcing overtime. Take your pick: This outcome could have been a lot better for Utah, or a lot worse.

“As bad as it was ...” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham started one sentence, in the context of a compliment to his team, after everything that went wrong.

The Utes’ ability to stay in this game, Huntley said, “shows you that we’re a unique team.”

That’s one of the possible labels, certainly. After the Cougars’ first six takeaways and a long punt return, Utah’s defense took the field either around midfield or deep in its own territory. WSU scored a total of 20 points on those seven possessions.

Simply too much was asked of the defense, amid all of the mistakes and blocking issues. Utah’s offensive line allowed seven sacks and the Utes flirted with negative rushing yardage through three quarters.

“There were some people that did their jobs; some people didn’t do their jobs, it’s as simple as that,” said tackle Jackson Barton.

Those linemen did improve in the fourth quarter. At one point in the third period, the Utes had posted 152 total yards, while gaining 71 on one play (Huntley’s pass to Demari Simpkins) and netting 81 on the other 40 plays. Even while missing star receiver Darren Carrington II due to injury, Utah finished with 367 total yards to WSU’s 338 — a very respectable number against quarterback Luke Falk’s offense.

Falk’s Logan High School football career ended on an October afternoon in 2012. The Grizzlies fell so far behind Timpview (coached by Whittingham’s brother Cary) in a first-round playoff game that the last five minutes were played with a running clock as Falk sat alone on the bench.

This ending was much better for him, as the Cougars (9-2) stayed in the Pac-12 North race. WSU can win the title by beating Washington in the Apple Cup in two weeks, after a bye.

Considering the Utes play next weekend at Washington, their quest for bowl eligibility almost certainly will come down to the Nov. 25 home game vs. Colorado. That situation never has occurred in the Utes’ Pac-12 era; they’ve always have had four or seven-plus wins going into the regular-season finale with the Buffaloes.

So some element of drama is coming this month, one way or another.

“The beautiful thing about football,” Barton said, “is you can keep going and you can learn from your mistakes.”

That’s true. But as of mid-November, only two more games are promised to this team.