Kyle Whittingham says Utah’s first-half defensive struggle against Washington State was a mistake of ‘trying to get cute’

Offensively, the Utes created ‘more of an identity,’ despite being shut down in the second half.

Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew II (16) throws a pass while under pressure from Utah defensive back Marquise Blair (13) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham criticized himself Monday for authorizing a defensive scheme that was a case of “trying to get cute” against Washington State's passing offense.

The Utes successfully switched to a more standard alignment at halftime of a 28-24 loss, but then the Ute offense scored only three points after playing by far its best first half of the season.

Utah (2-2) visits No. 14 Stanford on Saturday. Cardinal running back Bryce Love reportedly is questionable after leaving a 38-17 loss to Notre Dame with an apparent leg injury. Ute senior center Lo Falemaka, also hurt Saturday, is not out for the season, Whittingham said; that’s typically the extent of Utah’s discussion of injuries. After making a fill-in start at right tackle in the previous game, redshirt freshman Nick Ford replaced Falemaka at center and played adequately, Whittingham said during his weekly news conference.

Whittingham wouldn’t attribute any of Utah’s second-half offensive downturn at Washington State to coaching on either side. The Ute staff “didn’t deviate from the game plan,” he said, “we just didn’t get as much going.”

WSU linebacker Peyton Pelluer said the Cougars adjusted at halftime by bringing more pressure from the edges, trying to take away the running of Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley. Yet Whittingham said WSU “played very basic the entire game.”

The Utes posted 21 points and 216 total yards in the first half of what Huntley labeled “probably one of our best games of the year.” Then again, that’s not saying much for a team that ranks 90th in the country in total offense (381.0 yards).

Utah has scored a total of three second-half points in two Pac-12 games, losses to Washington and Washington State. The Utes gained only 106 yards after halftime against the Cougars. Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor opened the game with a creative running scheme featuring Zack Moss and Huntley. But then WSU caught on to what Utah was doing, and the Utes lacked answers after their first drive of the second half resulted in a go-ahead field goal.

Whether the problem was Taylor calling too many passes or Huntley not throwing accurately, the offense produced 59 yards on its last five possessions. Huntley finished 12 of 20 for 118 yards. The 20 attempts is a reasonable total, contrasted with Moss' 30 carries, but Utah “probably needed more production out of the throw game,” Whittingham said.

Overall, Whittingham said he liked how the Utes established “more of an identity” offensively, after “straying from that a little bit. ...That was more of who we are.”

So was the defense’s approach in the second half at WSU. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley’s initial plan called for three linemen, providing eight defenders in coverage and often blitzing with another rusher. That didn’t work as well as the regular scheme.

The Utes could have won the game either of two ways: by completing the second-half shutout or scoring one more touchdown via offense or special teams. But the secondary allowed an 89-yard TD pass, in between two big plays for the Utes that were called back by penalties.

The closest Whittingham came to questioning any of the three key calls against Utah was when he said an official “thought he saw something” on Philip Afia’s block that nullified Britain Covey’s 65-yard punt return for a touchdown with the Utes leading 24-21. He clarified that on Moss' apparent fourth-down conversion on the final drive, the play was blown dead due to a false start called on Paulo. On the next play, a 36-yard pass to Covey to the WSU 7, guard Orlando Umana was flagged for holding. Whittingham’s takeaway is that holding could be called on almost any passing play, citing “the fortune, or misfortune, of when they call 'em.”

Utah at Stanford

Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MDT