Gordon Monson: Utah’s delayed dilemma — Is it better to play and lose than to never have played at all?
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Jordan Wilmore (5) is stopped as the Utah Utes host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Maybe Geoffrey Chaucer was right and maybe he was wrong when he first wrote the sentiment nearly 700 years ago that eventually was condensed into the modern phrase, “Better late than never.”
He coined it in The Yeoman’s Tale, which in turn is found in The Canterbury Tales, but this here is about college football, not college English lit, and still his notion was most applicable to Utah’s game against USC on Saturday — both measured by a calendar and by a watch.
The Utes’ first game of the season arrived in delayed form on November freaking 21st, and the kickoff itself took place at 8:33 at night.
But at least and at last Utah played, at least and at last Utah lost, by the count of 33-17, in an empty Rice-Eccles Stadium, a building undergoing renovation for better days ahead. This night was not much for the Utes to remember.
It is left, then, to the observer to decide if it’s better to play and lose than to never have played at all.
Either way, long-awaited answers to questions with that extended hang time — set back as they were by COVID — which even Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was asking himself finally appeared alongside.
Question: Would the Utes be hampered by their having played no games, while USC had already played two?
That’s not an excuse, it’s the tip of an explanation. On the other hand, maybe the Utes just aren’t that good. They took an early 3-zip lead, but then by way of three turnovers at their end of the field in the first half, handed USC every advantage to win this game, which it did. A couple of additional turnovers came later, as the offense too often stumbled and bumbled.
Utah couldn’t consistently run the ball and the Utes couldn’t consistently pass it, and nobody on their side could figure out any other way to try to move the thing forward.
Question: Who would start at quarterback for the Utes?
This may have been a surprise to some, but Whittingham had said for weeks that the most accurate passer would get the nod. It’s just that nobody on the outside knew if that was Rising, who had never played a down at Utah, or grad transfer Jake Bentley.
Question: Is Rising any good?
He had a couple of brief moments with crafty passes, but he also blooped an interception that killed a Utah scoring opportunity and he fumbled on a strip-sack within the shadow of the Utes’ own goalposts, enabling a USC touchdown, which gave the Trojans a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter. Rising was injured on that play, making way for Bentley.
Question: Is Bentley any good?
Answer: Um. Can we get back to you on that one? He hit 16 of 28 passes for 171 yards, two picks and a touchdown, the score coming just before the half, cutting USC’s lead at that juncture to seven.
Question: Otherwise, with so many newcomers, who would play what position for the Utes?
Answer: Everybody’s still trying to figure that out, since Utah players didn’t have their names on the back of their jerseys, they had messages, such as “Love” and “Unity” and “Together” and “Hope” and “Equality” and “Enough.”
Enough was pretty good and so was Unity, but Together and Hope stunk.
Question: Who would get the majority of carries at running back?
Answer: Early on it was Ty Jordan, but Devin Brumfield, Jordan Wilmore and Micah Bernard joined in, too.
As Whittingham had indicated, the role of replacing Zack Moss was filled by committee, a group of young backs that collectively showed talents spread among them. The problem for the Utes is that those skills are, indeed, spread out. No one runner possesses them all. And nobody shined on Saturday night.
Wilmore gained 38 yards, Jordan got 32, Brumfield 28. The Utes’ effectiveness in their ground game, a foundational part of their football tradition, obviously must improve. It’s inconclusive how quickly this can be smoothed out or if it will be.
Question: Could the inexperienced back end of the Utah defense adequately replace the program’s stellar departures, most of whom now are playing in the NFL?
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis was hesitant at times to throw downfield because of the Utes’ coverages, and that limited the Trojans’ offensive efficiency and effectiveness. Slovis completed 24 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns, which was ample enough.
Some missed assignments and tackles, though, sullied the secondary’s general performance, including a TD pass from Slovis to Isaia Pola-Mao midway through the second quarter, giving SC a 17-10 edge, and then another scoring throw that made it 24-10.
Question: What about the rest of the Utah defense, seeing that nine of last year’s starters are gone?
Answer: This is not a vintage Ute D, yet, but it’s not bad.
That defense has a longstanding tradition of putting up the kind of resistance that typically not only keeps Utah in games, but scares the bejeebers out of opposing attacks, offenses that stall out against constant pressure that disjoints the pass game, but also achieves what the Utes have always considered the most important task in every game against every foe — stop the run.
On this occasion, Utah lived up to its rep about half the time, but also suffered from its offense’s errors. While Slovis tried to figure out what to do on one snap, the ball was poked loose, picked up by linebacker Nephi Sewell and returned for a touchdown, tying the game in the second quarter at 10-all. Sewell also saved the Utes from another SC touchdown with a subsequent interception.
All told, Utah yielded 357 yards to the Trojans’ offense, 93 on the ground.
Question: Would the offensive line transform itself into the sort of strength that was seen last season as a weakness, an area that had to get better in order for the rest of the O to gain confidence and comfort that would bode well in a complete, convincing, comprehensive way?
Answer: No. Not enough space, nor confidence was created up front.
Question: What about the receivers and tight ends? Would Brant Kuithe be the force he was last year? What about the rest?
Answer: Kuithe wasn’t targeted much and caught just four passes for 23 yards. The other receivers were marginal, none of them could cause USC much concern with any kind of big-yardage plays.
Question: Could the Utes defend their South title, winning it for the third consecutive year and beat preseason-favorite SC?
Answer: No and no. With only three scheduled games remaining, a third divisional title is pretty much a cloud blown by.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.