Utes in review: Utah helps itself vs. Washington State, getting closer to USC

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes receiver Derrick Vickers (8) celebrates a touchdown 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’s football team will go into October with a much better outlook than last year, thanks to a performance Saturday night that resembled what everyone pictured for the Utes this season.

Well, except for the absences of running back Zack Moss and receiver Britain Covey.

Utah’s missing those playmakers made a 526-yard offensive showing more impressive in a 38-13 defeat of Washington State that made Cougar coach Mike Leach label his team “very soft” on both sides of the ball. The Utes earned a “tough” rating from Leach, after dominating the second half of a game they absolutely had to win.

Going into a bye week before facing Oregon State on Oct. 12, “You don’t want to sit on a loss for two weeks,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

So the immediate view is brighter, compared with last year, when a 28-24 loss at WSU dropped Utah to 0-2 conference play. The long-term picture of the Pac-12 South is encouraging and discouraging to the Utes, knowing they should have beaten USC and still need help vs. the Trojans (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12). USC’s 28-14 loss at Washington pulled the Trojans back toward Utah (4-1, 1-1), although USC owns the tiebreaker. That’s significant. The teams have similar schedules remaining, and Utah must finish one game ahead of the Trojans to qualify for the Pac-12 championship game (allowing for the possibility of a three-team tie).

If the Utes beat Oregon State and lose to Washington, and USC falls to Oregon, for example, Utah will need a better record than USC against five common opponents: Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA and California. Utah and USC are favored in those games, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

WSU may have contributed to Utah’s favorable impression Saturday. In any case, “It was a great to see our guys put a complete game together,” Whittingham said.

The best illustration of Utah’s success, compared to the previous week at USC, came via quarterback Tyler Huntley’s first-half completions of 54 yards to Bryan Thompson, 52 yards to Samson Nacua and 41 yards to Solomon Enis. The Cougars’ longest pass all night went for 21 yards against a Ute secondary that “wanted redemption,” Whittingham said.

Whittingham likes Moss' chances of returning from a shoulder injury to play at Oregon State. Covey is another story, with the possibility of redshirting after appearing in four games following knee surgery. “Whether or not he resumes play this year is up in the air right now,” Whittingham said. “He went through the first four weeks; as you all could probably tell, he wasn't himself. He's just not who he is; he doesn't have that lightning speed and quickness. … We'll see where he is in a few weeks; we'll see where we are” as a team.

Three takeaways

• Utah’s Andy Ludwig (offense) and Morgan Scalley (defense) are among the Pac-12′s highest-paid coordinators. Breaking down their salaries into 12 one-game checks, they earned their $68,333.33 against WSU’s Leach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.

Disregarding some failures near the goal line, Ludwig has done remarkable work without Moss. Utah has produced 56 first downs, 973 total yards and 439 rushing yards, while moving into the opponent’s territory on all but two drives in two games.

“When we brought Andy back, this is exactly what we envisioned,” Whittingham said.

Scalley’s mix of alignments and coverage included some elements Utah had not shown in four straight losses to WSU over six seasons and “just had 'em off balance,” Whittingham said.

During a weekend when the unbeaten 2004 team he co-captained was inducted into the Crimson Club Hall of Fame, Scalley held WSU to 13 points and 313 total yards.

• Utah’s secondary was outstanding. The Utes covered receivers well and made plays on the ball, in a defensive package that was “nothing too fancy,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon went 30 of 49 for 252 yards. Of those 19 misses, the Utes were credited with 12 pass breakups, the team’s highest total since 1998.

• Utah’s ball-control approach succeeded, because the Utes scored touchdowns on four of six trips inside the 20-yard line. Utah also benefited from WSU’s seven-minute, scoreless possession spanning the third-quarter break, when the Cougars trailed 31-13.

Ute safety Julian Blackmon's fourth-and-goal tackle stopped the drive, after the Ute coaches used some clever strategy to slow the game and rest their defense. Whenever the Cougars substituted offensively, Utah's defense was allowed to make changes. So a defensive lineman, usually Leki Fotu or Maxs Tupai, would slowly trot onto the field and replace the other, while an official stood over the ball and the clock kept running.

Player of the game

Tyler Huntley. Moss’ absence required more of Utah’s QB, and he responded with 334 yards passing and two touchdowns and ran for two scores. “I can tell you right now, he’s the team leader,” said Whittingham, who praised him as “one of the best quarterbacks in the country right now.”

Play of the game

Among Huntley’s 365 total yards, a 1-yard play was the biggest. Utah led only 14-13 late in the first half and faced fourth-and-1 at the WSU 27. Huntley was swarmed, but he got the ball to running back Devin Brumfield, who powered ahead for the necessary yard and kept a touchdown drive going.

Up next

The Utes in two weeks will face an improving Oregon State team on the road. The Beavers lost 31-28 to Stanford on a last-second field goal Saturday, but quarterback Jake Luton passed for 337 yards and OSU outgained Stanford 501-353. OSU (1-3, 0-1) plays this Saturday at UCLA.