Utah defensive backs Terrell Burgess and Julian Blackmon sounded eager to face another high-powered passing scheme this week as a redemption opportunity, after the Utes gave up three long touchdown plays in a loss at USC.
That was before they knew Washington State's Anthony Gordon would throw nine TD passes Saturday night against UCLA.
The untold part of that story is the Cougars needed one more touchdown. WSU somehow blew a 32-point lead in the second half of a 67-63 defeat, raising questions about the emotional state of the Utes and Cougars, going into Utah’s homecoming game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Pac-12 is as crazy as ever, that's clear. And a game that kicks off at 8 p.m. Saturday undoubtedly will last a while, as the Utes try to outscore WSU's prolific offense and avoid an 0-2 start in conference play for a second straight season. That chore will be complicated if Ute running back Zack Moss remains out with a shoulder injury, after leaving the game at USC early in the second quarter.
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Utah a 64.1-percent chance of beating WSU, but only a 6.3-percent chance of winning the Pac-12 championship and going to the Rose Bowl.
WASHINGTON STATE AT UTAH
Saturday, 8 p.m.
Utah’s secondary will be dealing with Gordon, a first-year starter as a senior. He threw for 570 yards against UCLA as the Cougars totaled 720 yards. In a 30-23 loss Friday at USC, Utah allowed 351 yards passing to Matt Fink, who replaced an injured Kedon Slovis on the game’s third play, after having started the season as the Trojans’ No. 3 quarterback.
Blackmon spoke afterward of the defense's chance to “redeem ourselves” against another passing team, saying of USC's talented receivers, “We let 'em get us this time.”
The Cougars may lack the individual talent of the Trojans' Michael Pittman Jr. and other receivers, but they have plenty of people who can catch the ball.
USC’s success through the air against Utah came largely via Fink’s launching the ball downfield and having Pittman go and get it. WSU’s original version of the Air Raid is more complex, yet simple, designed to complete short passes repeatedly. Gordon went 41 of 61 against UCLA.
Utah’s defensive strategy will be interesting, stemming from what happened Friday in Los Angeles and last September in a 28-24 loss to WSU in Pullman, Wash.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley used three defensive linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs in the first half against WSU, as Utah allowed 21 points. They went with the standard four linemen in the second half, after Leki Fotu completed a suspension for targeting in the previous game. With an increased pass rush, Utah's defense became more effective.
Against USC, the Utes struggled initially with their preferred man-to-man coverage. The coaches “changed philosophy a little bit, mid-stream,” Whittingham said, because their scheme was “getting a little bit compromised, I guess you could say.”
Utah played more zone defense after USC's first two scoring drives, forcing four punts in the game and getting an interception from Burgess. Pittman still beat the Utes in the second half with a 77-yard touchdown catch and a 42-yard reception, leading to another score.
At the start, “We weren't ready, man,” Blackmon said. “This is what we practiced for, but we came out a little slow.”
“It took us awhile to adjust,” said linebacker Francis Bernard, “and when we finally did adjust, it was too late.”
It is not too late for the Utes to establish themselves in the Pac-12 South. If they beat WSU and USC loses Saturday at Washington, their outlook will improve immediately. But if Utah again falls to 0-2 in conference play, that would be a big letdown for a formerly No. 10-ranked team.
Utah's second defeat of 2018 came last September in Pullman, where Blackmon and former Ute safety Corrion Ballard were beaten for the winning, 89-yard touchdown pass as current NFL starting quarterback Gardner Minshew threw for 445 yards. Until that play, though, Utah's defense seemingly was about to do the impossible: hold WSU scoreless in the second half.
The Utes' lead didn't last forever, although that sequence of events was nothing like what unfolded Saturday in Pullman. WSU led 49-17, but “our guys got frantic and panicked,” coach Mike Leach said. “We collapsed in every phase of the game.”
That’s mostly true. Gordon threw two more TD passes and the Cougars still led 63-60, but a fumble after a reception gave UCLA an opportunity for the winning score. Gordon then was sacked and fumbled (WSU’s sixth turnover), effectively ending the game.