Utes bounce back with a dominating effort, beating Washington State 38-13

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah players prepare to take the field as the Utah Utes host the Washington State Cougars, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday Sept. 28, 2019.

Utah righted itself in the rain at Rice-Eccles Stadium and finally beat Washington State.

The No. 19 Utes responded to last weekend’s frustrating loss at USC with a strong offensive and defensive showing Saturday night in a 38-13 win.

Utah posted nearly 500 yards in the first three quarters and held the prolific Cougars scoreless in the second half.

The Utes delivered what coach Kyle Whittingham labeled “a complete game” overall and had a remarkable effort by a secondary that “wanted redemption” after giving up 368 yards passing and 30 points to USC.

“We couldn't sit there and sulk,” said Ute cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who described the defensive package as “nothing too fancy.”

Ute defenders were credited with 12 pass breakups, including three by safety Terrell Burgess. Anthony Gordon passed for only about half of WSU's 499-yard season average and was intercepted twice, by Johnson and Francis Bernard.

Senior quarterback Tyler Huntley played brilliantly for Utah (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12), passing for 334 yards and accounting for four touchdowns in the absence of injured playmakers Zack Moss and Britain Covey. The Utes converted their big-yardage production into plenty of points – thanks to the Utah defense’s resilient performance against one of the country’s best offenses.

“We know that we're missing Zack,” Huntley said of his Florida high school teammate, “so we've got to win another way.”

The offense did more than its share in a winning effort, after some frustration in failing to finish two drives in the first half. The Utes went 6 of 12 on third-down conversions and 2 of 3 on fourth downs in the game, while keeping the ball for 34-plus minutes. Utah punted only once all night and had no turnovers.

And even WSU's seven-minute drive spanning the third-quarter break worked out nicely for Utah, because the Cougars didn't score.

The Cougars (3-2, 0-2) had beaten Utah in each of the last four meetings, including rallying for a 28-24 win last September after the Utes almost shut them out in the second half in Pullman, Wash. This time, the Utes' mix of defensive strategy and their offensive ability to possess the ball and find the end zone just often enough was a winning combination.

Even if late September may have seemed too early for scoreboard watching, the Utah were happy to receive some help in the Pac-12 South race. USC's 28-14 loss at Washington was good news for the Utes, considering the Trojans potentially could have taken a 2½-game lead over Utah (plus the tiebreaker) after Saturday's outcomes in Seattle and Salt Lake City.

The Utes were hoping to avoid an 0-2 start of conference play for second year in a row, even while knowing they overcame their struggles of last September to win the program's first Pac-12 South championship. Utah fell to Washington and Washington State but recovered to finish 6-3 and earn an outright division title, despite a loss to runner-up Arizona State in November.

Utah was missing Moss and Covey, after they took a pounding in last week's 30-23 loss at USC. Devin Brumfield remained the primary running back, while Devonta'e Henry-Cole caught a first-quarter TD pass and played an even bigger role in the second half. Samson Nacua moved up as a slot receiver and caught five passes for 90 yards and a touchdown.

Ute defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley altered his scheme, starting the game with six defensive backs and one linebacker. He also employed three linemen and two linebackers at times.

The strategy was fairly effective in the first half, when the Utes took a 21-13 lead by forcing two punts and two field goals. Utah posted 325 total yards to the Cougars' 190. The Utes drove into WSU territory on all five possessions and could have built a bigger advantage, but Jadon Redding missed a field goal (after Demari Simpkins dropped a would-be touchdown pass) on the opening drive and Jordan Wilmore was stopped on a fourth-and-1 run in the second quarter.

Huntley produced a terrific half of quarterbacking, throwing for 242 yards and two touchdowns and running 15 yards for another score. Huntley's best play of all may have been the one that went for a 1-yard gain, as he somehow got the ball to Devin Brumfield to convert a fourth-and-1 chance on Utah's third TD drive.

Gordon passed for 154 yards and one score in the half.

The Utes used half of the third quarter on their opening drive, but a penalty on second and goal at the 1 made them settle for a field goal to make it 24-13.

Johnson's interception on WSU's third play of the second half led to Utah's touchdown drive, ending with receiver Derrick Vickers' 7-yard run for a 31-13 lead.

Entering the fourth period, Utah had 478 total yards to the Cougars' 216.

WSU then drove to the Ute 2-yard line, while eating up the clock to its disadvantage, and Utah safety Julian Blackmon's tackle of running back Max Borghi on a fourth-and-goal play effectively ended the game.

The Utes added one more touchdown via Huntley’s 3-yard run after Bernard’s interception.