Utes in review: Need encouragement about Utah’s future? The rest of the Pac-12 South offers help

Even amid Utah’s offensive struggles, the division title is there for the taking.

Former Utah quarterback Troy Williams lost a close game to his old Washington teammates at Rice-Eccles Stadium two years ago and inaccurately predicted the Top 25 teams would meet again in the Pac-12 championship game. Ute linebacker Cody Barton made the same promise Saturday night, with even less supporting evidence.

“I’m confident that we’ll see them again,” the senior co-captain said after a 21-7 loss to the No. 10 Huskies to begin Pac-12 play.

Nobody else in the Pac-12 South has made a convincing case for itself as the likely champion, so Barton’s forecast is not unreasonable. It’s also fair to say that mere bowl eligibility is not promised to the Utes (2-1) at this stage. Can you find four sure wins on their schedule? With this offense?

Utah’s biggest consolation is the state of the South, with no Top 25 teams. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects Utah with 7.2 wins, with the No. 38 remaining strength of schedule. That’s a commentary on the division’s performance through three weeks. Before anyone else had played a game, Utah’s strength of schedule was No. 3.

This possibility is somewhere between crazy and conceivable: The South’s winner could have a 5-4 conference record.

The Utes' immediate problem is that before they meet a South rival, they have to visit two good teams from the North: Washington State (Sept. 29) and No. 7 Stanford (Oct. 6). That means using a bye week to find some kind of offensive consistency.

Including a win over Group of Five member Northern Illinois, Utah has produced 17 offensive points in two games. That’s the worst two-week stretch of the program’s Pac-12 era. Some combination of dropped passes, turnovers and running back Zack Moss' ankle injury limited the Utes to 261 total yards vs. Washington, a year after basically the same cast of players and coaches produced 30 points and 410 yards in Seattle against the Pac-12′s best defense.

An interception of quarterback Tyler Huntley just before halftime prevented the Utes from trying a field goal. Two lost fumbles came after receivers Britain Covey and Bronson Boyd caught passes for first downs in the third quarter. Trailing by two touchdowns, the Utes later took possession at the Washington 11- and 28-yard lines and were stopped on downs each time.

“I guess the bottom line is we had some chances,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Didn’t capitalize. When you’re playing a team that good, you’d better capitalize.”

Three takeaways

-Dropping passes is becoming a disease, spreading from the receivers to the tight ends. Covey and Samson Nacua combined for 16 of Utah’s 20 receptions, making just about everyone else guilty of drops. “You saw some of those drops where it’s small things like taking your eye off the ball, stuff you learn in kindergarten,” Covey said.

-Utah’s defense played well enough to win, especially in pressuring UW quarterback Jake Browning. Holding the Huskies to 327 yards and 21 points is more than respectable and the defensive showing may have been even better if not for Leki Fotu’s roughing-the-passer penalty (with targeting), taking away Barton’s interception. That flag sustained a Husky touchdown drive.

-Covey’s toughness is a phenomenon. He absorbed repeated hits from Washington’s aggressive secondary, while catching eight passes for 54 yards and returning five punts for 77 yards. “Got the wind knocked out of me about 12 times,” he said, “but I’ll be OK.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18) after a hard hit by Washington Huskies defensive back Byron Murphy (1) as the University of Utah hosts Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday Sept. 15, 2018.

Player of the game

Myles Gaskin, Washington running back. Utah contained him fairly well, other than his 38-yard touchdown run on the Huskies' opening drive. He gained 105 yards on his other 29 attempts. Yet it is inevitable to see Gaskin with 30 carries and wonder if that’s what Utah’s offense should look like.

Runner-up: Barton. He made eight solo tackles, running all over the field, and his would-be interception came on a remarkable play down the sideline.

Play of the game

Ute defensive Pita Tonga somehow had the ball slip out of his hand as he ran untouched toward the end zone with a fourth-quarter interception. The ball went of bounds; Utah took over at the Washington 11. Runner-up: Tight end Connor Haller’s drop of Huntley’s pass on the offensive sequence that followed. Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor deserves considerable scrutiny right now, but that fourth-and-1 call was shrewd. “It was wide open,” Whittingham said. “Another drop.”

Personnel updates

Redshirt freshman Nick Ford filled in at right tackle for an injured Darrin Paulo and played well, Whittingham said. The offensive line did a better job in pass protection, allowing two sacks. Ford, however, was called for a holding penalty that nullified a completion to the Washington 3 on Utah’s second-to-last drive.

With linebackers Barton, Chase Hansen and Donavan Thompson combining for 16 solo tackles and 14 assists, BYU transfer Francis Bernard did not play for the second game in a row.

Around the Pac-12

The only South teams that won Saturday were Arizona (over Southern Utah) and Colorado (over New Hampshire), facing FCS teams. USC lost 37-14 at Texas, UCLA fell 38-14 to Fresno State and Arizona State lost 28-21 at San Diego State. Washington State (3-0), Utah’s next opponent, opens Pac-12 play Friday at USC.