Utes fall to Washington State 28-24, via Cougars’ late touchdown and Utah’s own costly penalties

Washington State linebacker Jahad Woods (13) tackles Utah wide receiver Jaylen Dixon (25) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Pullman, Wash. • Utah's defense lost a lead, after going more than half of the game without allowing a point to Washington State's prolific offense.

Utah's offense almost went ahead in the last minute, after having produced only three points since the middle of the second quarter.

In the end, Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley's summary of a 28-24 defeat covered most of what unfolded Saturday at Martin Stadium: “We had it won; we lost it.”

And they couldn’t quite win it again, to complete the accounting of a loss that left the Utes (2-2, 0-2 Pac-12) wishing they just could have finished this game better, somehow. They’re reeling, with a trip to No. 7 Stanford ahead and a season that’s already getting away from them as September concludes.

“We've just got to eat this one and move on,” said junior cornerback Julian Blackmon.

That won’t be easy for him or his teammates. Blackmon was beaten in man-to-man coverage for the Cougars' winning touchdown, an 89-yard pass from Gardner Minshew to Easop Winston with 4:14 remaining.

Shortly before that sequence, Britain Covey’s punt-return touchdown for Utah was nullified by a blocking penalty. There were more flags where that one came from. After the Cougars went ahead, the Utes reached the WSU 38-yard line and twice thought they converted fourth-down plays — including a reception that Covey took to the Cougars' 7. Each was brought back, for illegal procedure and holding.

“There was a lot of officiating going on in the fourth quarter, and we were on the wrong end of much of it,” said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, who later clarified that he was not “pinning things” on that aspect.

Yet that element is part of the mystery of a game that would have left one team or the other wondering what happened to its offense after a 21-21 tie with six minutes left in the second quarter. From a Utah perspective, either of two questions applies: How could a formerly struggling offense actually score three touchdowns in four possessions of the first half? Or what went wrong after that?

“We got one-dimensional,” said Zack Moss, who finished with 30 carries for 106 yards, but was overlooked in the play-calling for a long stretch of the second half. Utah's offense produced only a field goal on its last seven drives.

The Cougars also got tougher. The diversity of Utah's running attack made it work in the first half, when Huntley ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns. He temporarily reached 100 yards, but finished with 88 due to sacks.

As for the defense, how could Utah allow touchdowns on three straight drives, then shut down the Cougars on six possessions, only to give up the winning completion?

The schematic explanation for the improvement was more use of four defensive linemen in the second half, instead of a three-man front with various blitzers. “The defense studded up in the second half; just one big play, which was obviously the back-breaker,” Whittingham said.

Whittingham had framed the game by saying, “You're not going to beat Washington State 21-17; that's not going to happen.”

Even so, it certainly could have ended 24-21. Utah sacked Minshew twice in the fourth quarter and, when its offense stalled, Mitch Wishnowky lofted three straight punts inside the 10.

One or two more stops would have completed a phenomenal turnaround for Utah’s defense. But it buckled, and then the offense couldn’t stop its own second-half spiral.