After would-be touchdowns got away from them, the Utes’ Pita Tonga and Connor Haller are moving on

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes tight end Connor Haller (46) reacts to an incomplete pass in the end zone as the University of Utah hosts Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday Sept. 15, 2018.

Hannah Haller so eagerly hugged her husband after the game that he wondered if she missed his most dramatic play.

“Hannah,” Utah tight end Connor Haller asked, “do you realize what happened? I dropped the ball for a touchdown.”

She knew. Everybody knew. Haller was involved in one of the Utes' two Touchdowns That Never Happened in last weekend's 21-7 loss to No. 10 Washington, a pair of disasters within a five-play sequence that Haller and defensive lineman Pita Tonga wish they could do over.

In a weird way, it would have been even worse for them if the Utes had scored late in the game, making those lost seven points more meaningful. Yet the two players from the Salt Lake Valley felt as bad as they possibly could about their failure to score the first touchdowns of their college career, letting down their teammates. They’re having to live with those memories for two weeks, with the Utes resuming their season on Sept. 29 at Washington State (the Cougars lost 39-36 at USC on Friday).

“The best thing to do,” Haller said, “is just forget about it.”

The reactions to their memorable plays have revealed some of the best and worst in people, while they deserve credit for willingly reliving those rough moments in interviews. Haller was overwhelmed by the encouraging responses of teammates, friends and relatives, especially his wife of four months. Tonga was compelled to delete his Twitter account after receiving so much harsh feedback, while also being derided on national highlight shows.

The image of a 300-pound lineman rumbling down the field toward the end zone, only to lose the ball without being touched by an opponent, made Tonga an easy target. In Haller’s case, a coach who ordered a pass play on fourth and 1 and a quarterback who threw the ball harder than necessary share a fraction of the blame.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive tackle Pita Tonga (49) chases his fumbled interception out of bounds as the University of Utah hosts Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday Sept. 15, 2018.

The sad part for Tonga is if he just had made it to the end zone, he would be remembered for making a phenomenal play. The rush of Utah's Bradlee Anae and Mika Tafua forced Washington senior quarterback Jake Browning to make a poor decision, throwing the ball toward Tonga, a son of a former Ute linebacker of the same name. The lineman from Highland High School jumped and grabbed the ball at the 32-yard line and headed down the right sideline.

“I kept thinking I was going to get caught,” he said. “Pretty much what I was thinking was just to not get caught.”

The Huskies couldn’t catch him, but Tonga’s swinging of the ball in his right hand created a problem. His thigh bumped the ball and it sailed out of bounds, so Utah kept possession at the Washington 11. A touchdown, though, “could have turned the tide of the game and given us a lot of momentum,” Tonga said.

Tonga's mistake with 12:45 remaining and Utah trailing by two touchdowns would have been far more forgivable if the Ute offense had capitalized on its scoring opportunity. On third down, Tyler Huntley's completion to Britain Covey (Haller's cousin) moved the ball to the Washington 2.

Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor sent in a personnel group of multiple tight ends, a standard goal-line formation that makes the defense think a run is coming. Taylor called a fake pitch to the left and rollout pass to the right. In his only other offensive play that night, Haller had caught a 4-yard pass for a first down on third and 1, extending Utah's touchdown drive in the first quarter.

The play again worked perfectly, except for the ending. Huntley's pass from about 5 yards away could have been softer, certainly. “It happens really fast,” Haller said. “I told myself the whole way, 'Look it in, look it in, look it in.' The ball was thrown pretty fast; we were pretty close together.”

The motto of Utah's tight ends is “Good ball, bad ball, catch 'em all.” Haller didn't catch this one, with the ball glancing off his hands, going over his head and landing in the end zone.

“Oh, not the best feeling, let me tell you that,” Haller said.

The Olympus High alumnus, who plays regularly on special teams, hopes for more pass-catching opportunities. “I have total confidence in myself,” he said.

Tonga may never get another chance to catch the ball and run with it, although he'll continue to have a big role in Utah's defensive line rotation. “I feel like I've come a long way,” he said, “but I have so much more to go.”

In last weekend’s case, he just needed to travel another 11 yards.

Utah at Washington State

Sept. 29

4 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Networks