Utes in review: December’s downturn is revealing for Utah, and not in a good way

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) leaves the field with the Sportsmanship Award following the Alamo Bowl between the Utes and the Texas Longhorns in San Antonio, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019.

San Antonio • As fireworks exploded downtown, Utah’s football program again stumbled into a new year.

The Utes’ 38-10 loss to Texas in Tuesday’s Alamo Bowl spoiled their planned New Year’s Eve celebration of another season that brought them a Pac-12 South championship and a combo plate of discouraging defeats in the end. For the first time since the Jim Fassel coaching era of the mid 1980s, Utah has lost its last two games in two straight years.

This conclusion looks and feels a lot worse than Utah’s 2018 finish, for multiple reasons. The Utes went into December with an 11-1 record and No. 5 ranking, only to be outscored 75-25 by Oregon and Texas.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Texas Longhorns defensive back B.J. Foster (25) and defensive lineman Malcolm Roach (32) pile on Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) for a quarterback sack in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019.

Ute coach Kyle Whittingham tried to “keep things in perspective and understand what you accomplished,” as he said Tuesday, “and what your deficiencies are and what you need to work on.”

Utah coordinators Andy Ludwig (offense) and Morgan Scalley (defense) did some outstanding work this season. Yet they were outcoached by a Texas staff that is being upgraded for 2020 and was pieced together for the Alamo Bowl, without those new hires.

After the Longhorns produced a 438-254 advantage in total yards at the Alamodome, Texas coach Tom Herman addressed his recent bowl success, explaining, “It's always been about physicality.”

That’s supposedly the Utes’ hallmark, and December is traditionally their month. Utah’s offensive line, though, was overwhelmed by Oregon and Texas. Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley said the team treated the bowl trip too much like “a vacation.”

Utah hoped to exploit Texas' defense with Moss' consistent running and Huntley's downfield passing. That stuff didn't happen, as the Longhorns produced five sacks (three by linebacker Joseph Ossai) and 13 tackles for loss. “We didn't make them pay for the amount of blitzing they were doing,” said Whittingham, whose bowl record is 11-3.

The Utes' final act would make anyone wonder how good they really were in 2019, even after they ransacked the Pac-12 with eight straight wins. Losing to Washington and Northwestern last season was more forgivable than this downturn, because those games were competitive and Utah was missing Huntley and running back Zack Moss.

In December, the most talented roster in school history was exposed. Maybe everyone should have seen this coming. Utah's offensive line never dominated opponents, especially in short-yardage situations, and the defense allowed four touchdowns each to USC and Washington, teams with comparable talent to Oregon and Texas.

This is what Utah wanted in 2010, accepting a Power Five conference invitation. As the decade ended, the Utes had played their way onto some big stages, but they didn't look like they belonged there.

Joined by four players in the postgame news conference, Whittingham said the Alamo Bowl “doesn't tarnish one iota of what the senior class accomplished.”

The Utes, though, didn't make much of a closing argument.

Three takeaways

• Utah’s defense could have used safety Julian Blackmon, who injured his knee vs. Oregon, and cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who’s preparing for the NFL draft. They may have made some plays that went Texas’ way on contested catches.

It’s also true that the Utes’ national rankings were built by dominating inferior opponents. The four most talented offenses they faced — USC, Washington, Oregon and Texas — each posted 28-plus points.

• Utah’s 2020 story will begin up front. A line with four returning starters will have to perform much better in the absence of Huntley (3,092 yards passing in 2019) and Moss (4,067 yards rushing in his career) and eight defensive starters.

Realistically, the offense may have to carry the the team at times. That's a new concept for Utah, and it can happen only if the line improves. Junior college transfer Bamidele Olaseni should be part of the solution; we'll see if young players in the program develop quickly enough to supplant any returning starters.

• This will be a longer offseason for Utah’s coaches and returning players. The vibe was much different last winter, when the Utes were buoyed by the choices of four NFL prospects to stay in school.

Player of the game

Joseph Ossai, Texas linebacker. The Utes couldn't block Ossai, who had six tackles for loss.

Runner-up: Mika Tafua, Utah defensive end. One of the three returning starters on defense in 2020, Tafua made eight tackles (1½ for loss) Tuesday.

Play of the game

Ossai's catching Huntley for a 2-yard loss on a fourth-and-1 play to begin the third quarter. That was an example of Ludwig's believing he needed to trick the Longhorns, rather than rely on the offensive line.

Runner-up: Reserve running back Devonta'e Henry-Cole's dropped pass on a play designed for him. He was wide open along the sideline on third down from the Utah 41 in the first quarter.

Up next

Utah will host BYU (Sept. 3, 4 or 5), with each team taking a two-game losing streak into the rivalry game for the first time since 1971.

The Utes’ other home opponents in 2020 (dates have not been announced for Pac-12 games) are Montana State, Oregon State, Washington, Arizona and USC. Utah will visit Wyoming, Washington State, California, Arizona State, UCLA and Colorado.

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