Utes left with regrets after hurting their own cause in 21-7 loss to No. 10 Washington

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham leads his team to the locker room before the game as the University of Utah hosts Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday Sept. 15, 2018.

Utah defensive lineman Pita Tonga intercepted a pass and lumbered toward the end zone, only to have the ball squirt out of his hand and go out of bounds. Four plays later, Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley’s rollout pass bounced off the hands of wide-open tight end Connor Haller in the end zone.

That's the how the Utes managed to avoid the devastating feeling of coming really close to Washington and somehow losing in the end.

A two-touchdown defeat hardly solved the problem, though. Even if there's no single, difference-making play the Utes wish they could do over in this episode, they were left with a lot of regrets in a 21-7 loss to the No. 10 Huskies in a Pac-12 opener Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

This was one of those nights when every questionable call and every critical play seemed to go in Washington's favor and against the Utes (2-1), and the home team couldn't overcome three turnovers and several missed scoring opportunities, amid the usual number of dropped passes.

“We just hurt ourselves in various situations,” Huntley said.

Utah's offense totaled only 261 total yards, facing an excellent defense while also stopping itself with inconsistency and mistakes. Myles Gaskin rushed for 143 yards for Washington against a Utah defense that performed solidly after the Huskies' opening drive.

“If you had told me they'd get 21 points and [327] yards, I'd say we'd have a pretty good chance to win the game,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.

The Utes' Zack Moss carried the ball 13 times for 67 yards. Whittingham has endorsed a bigger workload for Moss, but in this case he said the coaching staff got as much as possible out of the running back, who injured his ankle last weekend at Northern Illinois.

Utah could have and maybe even should have beaten Washington (2-1) each of the past two seasons, only to have everything go wrong in the late stages of those games. This time, the Utes' misadventures were evenly distributed throughout the night. Utah's defense lost safety Marquise Blair and tackle Leki Fotu to ejections via targeting penalties. Fotu's roughing-the-passer flag was costly, taking away Cody Barton's nice interception and extending a Washington drive that ended with Jake Browning's 6-yard TD pass to Ty Jones to make it 21-7 midway through the third quarter.

And that's where the score stayed.

The loss only mildly affects the Utes' chances of winning the Pac-12 South title, although they likely will need one or more victories against their crossover opponents from the North – and beating Washington would have been a very good start.

Utah had great chances to beat the Huskies at home in 2016 and on the road in 2017, but a series of game-changing plays went Washington's way in the last four minutes.

In Saturday's case, the Utes started poorly, recovered, fell behind 14-7 at halftime and then trailed by two touchdowns after three quarters, thanks partly to their two fumbles.

Through two games, Utah's defense had allowed no play longer than 19 yards and no touchdown drive longer than 2 yards. The Huskies topped those numbers on their first possession, with Gaskins' 38-yard TD run finishing a 65-yard drive.

The Utes answered on their third possession. Huntley scrambled for 28 yards, leading to Moss' 1-yard touchdown.

After the Huskies went ahead 14-7 on Browning's 1-yard run, Utah was in field-goal range in the last minute of the first half. Huntley was intercepted by Jordan Miller on a long throw down the sideline, spoiling that opportunity.

Utah finally completed some medium-range passes in the third quarter, only to have receivers Britain Covey and Bronson Boyd lose fumbles after their catches. Covey absorbed several ferocious hits in the game.

“I'm good; I'm all right,” Covey said. “Got the wind knocked out of me about 12 times, but I'll be OK.”

After the Utes wasted Tonga's interception, they took over at the Washington 28-yard line following a short punt. But a holding penalty forced them into a fourth-and-long situation, and Huntley's pass fell incomplete.

The Utes will have a week off to regroup, before resuming conference play Sept. 29 at Washington State. The Cougars (3-0) will open their Pac-12 schedule Friday at USC, their first Power Five opponent of the season.

Asked what the Utes would emphasize during the extra preparation time, Whittingham said, “Catching the ball.”