Monson: Dressed out in black, Utah’s big intentions expire against Washington

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Samson Nacua (45) is tackled as the University of Utah hosts Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday Sept. 15, 2018.

They wore all black on a black-out night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, perfect not for a celebration, but for a funeral, or at least a sad memorial for Utah’s large 2018 intentions.

In what was the biggest game of the year for the Utes, against Washington’s Huskies on Saturday night, they responded in a manner that was … well, limited, showing neither the kind of explosiveness or precision necessary to reach their goal of slaying the Pac-12 this season.

They may yet win the diminished South, but there is much work ahead.

Utah, here on this occasion, simply was not good enough to beat the league favorite, losing 21-7, its offensive talents and discipline not vast enough to fulfill the promise the players had spoken about before the season started.

“We need to figure out what we need to do to get better,” quarterback Tyler Huntley said afterward, stating what was obvious.

“I’m confident we’re going to see them again in the Pac-12 championship game,” said linebacker Cody Barton, reaching for optimism after a disappointing loss.

The Utes’ effort was far from flawless — with them struggling to move the ball consistently on the ground, a major focus coming into the game after last week’s showing against Northern Illinois. Kyle Whittingham had talked about correcting some of those shortcomings, a requirement against a Washington defense that is formidable.

Zack Moss, who was hampered by injury the previous game, only getting 16 carries in that contest, a minimal usage rate that was objectionable to Whittingham, got less work against the Huskies, 13 carries, totaling 67 yards.

The running back is still hurt, Whittingham said, adding: “He’s giving everything he’s got.”

It was nowhere near enough.

Utah’s offensive line, a group that had been criticized in the run-up to this outing, for its spotty pass protection and deficiency in creating space for Moss, responded at times, not so much at others. Maybe it was too much to expect chunks of improvement against stronger, more powerful defensive resistance than anything that front had encountered heretofore.

When Huntley was assigned to pass, against one of the few defensive secondaries that is superior to the one he goes up against every day in practice, his success was patchy, insufficient, throwing for 138 yards.

He got no help from receivers who repeatedly muffed catchable balls.

“We’re dropping passes,” Whittingham concurred. “Those are drive-killers.”

There was, indeed, little comely about it. This game was rock’em-sock’em, and unsophisticated on attack. If the Huskies are the 10th-best team in the country, the Utes aren’t 50 miles behind, just … about 14 or so.

The affair, at times, resembled a mud fight, and that’s what the Utes had hoped it would be. There was a lot of defense, a lot of hitting, a lot of blocking, a lot of attempts at blocking, a lot of grunting, a lot of mistakes.

Along that line, It took Utah a bit to get anything going, waiting until the last minute of the first quarter to score — on an exceptional 12-play work of art, punctuated by Moss’s TD run. That matched the Huskies first scoring drive, ending with a 38-yard Myles Gaskin touchdown. Another Washington drive made it 14-7 at the half.

The Utes could never get out of their own way to catch up.

“We stood toe to toe,” said Whittingham. “We came up short.”

Ultimately, it was that failure that stood out as much as its overall effect, with tough meaning for Utah football, bringing up questions that have been asked in the past, especially about a weak offense. The Utes have had strong starts in previous seasons, winning Pac-12 games and climbing up the polls en route. Failings later have jettisoned high hopes in those years.

Indications on Saturday night left loftier expectations now downgraded.

“That didn’t go well,” Whittingham said.

The Utes benefited from a couple of advantages, foremost among them a supportive home crowd. But that support, while lifting them at junctures, was not enough to make a difference on the field — as has been the case too often in seasons gone by. The Utes now have a home record in Pac-12 games, since joining the league, of 15-18.

It wasn’t the fans’ fault. They wore their black, they yelled their guts out.

Here’s the hard truth: Too many errors did the Utes in, particularly penalties, the aforementioned drops, and turnovers. They could not gather themselves enough to generate the poise and points necessary to better a better team. A lower score was what the Utes had planned for, figuring that their chances for victory would be enhanced if the scoring was reduced.

They were right, but not like this, not the way it turned out, not in the manner needed for them to win their season’s biggest game with their biggest intentions.

“We had some chances,” Whittingham said, “and didn’t capitalize.”

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