For two weeks last September, with an open date between games vs. Washington and Washington State, everyone attached to Utah’s football team agonized about the Ute offense. That was nothing new, in a program that has searched for offensive consistency for a decade.
A year later, though, the unthinkable is happening. People are worrying about Utah’s defense. Washington State’s visit Saturday night ordinarily would cause mild concern, with the Cougars’ prolific passing offense, but the Ute secondary’s troubles last week in a 30-23 loss to USC have increased the amount of alarm.
Of all the potential issues for the No. 19 Utes coming into this season, the play of the defensive backs was far down the list. Who would have imagined coach Kyle Whittingham’s needing to say something like this in late September? “We believe in our secondary,” he said. “We don’t think the sky is falling.”
That may happen Saturday, when rain is in the forecast and WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon will fill the Rice-Eccles Stadium air space with footballs. Gordon passed for 570 yards and a Pac-12 record nine touchdowns in a 67-63 loss to UCLA last weekend.
WASHINGTON STATE AT NO. 19 UTAH
When • Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • FS1.
The Cougars represent a do-over opportunity for Utah safety Julian Blackmon, in multiple ways. This week’s theme already was in play for Blackmon, who was beaten for the Cougars’ winning touchdown pass last season in Pullman, Wash. And then he was in position to prevent two USC touchdowns last Friday, only to have a Trojan receiver grab the ball in between him and another Ute defender in each case.
In interviews this week, Blackmon good-naturedly relived all of those plays, never mentioning the knee injury that caused him to miss a Sept. 14 game vs. Idaho State as an excuse for what happened in Los Angeles. Watching the replays of USC's touchdowns “makes you sick,” he said, “especially if you care about this game … just knowing you missed the play.”
Blackmon had made an interception in each of Utah’s first two games, validating his move from cornerback to safety. When two of USC quarterback Matt Fink’s up-for-grabs passes were in the air — “backyard football,” as Whittingham labeled it — interceptions seemed more likely than touchdowns.
Blackmon views those outcomes as a humbling experience, telling himself, “OK, you're not as good as you thought you were. Make sure you get back to [executing] every little technique.”
WSU’s winning play last September sticks with him too. When he’s studying the Cougars, Blackmon sees star receiver Easop Winston Jr. and has flashbacks to Pullman.
The Utes were on the verge of a remarkable achievement, having held former WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew's offense scoreless in the first 25 minutes of the second half, with only 70 yards passing. On second and 6 from the Cougars' 11-yard line, Minshew launched a long pass to Winston on a fade pattern down the right sideline.
Winston, a few yards clear of Blackmon, made the catch near midfield. That's where the play turned crazy, as the receiver dodged former Ute safety Corrion Ballard as if they were figures in a video game. Winston completed the 89-yard play and WSU held on for a 28-24 victory.
Ballard certainly could have reduced the damage, but Blackmon blames himself for the completion “over the top of me” that decided the game — “the first time I can honestly say, ‘This one’s on me,’ ” he said. “Because at the end of the day, I should have been in better position. So to have [WSU] back for one more ride is just exciting for me.”
Prior to that game, Blackmon had described facing the Cougars’ all-out passing scheme as “every DB’s dream.” It turned into a nightmare, as darkness fell in Pullman. Almost exactly a year later, Blackmon hopes to rewrite the ending.