Rarely had Kyle Whittingham hoped with so many parts and pieces of his coaching soul that a worn-out cliche would ring true for … no, would come to the rescue of … his Utes on Saturday night at Washington, the one that professes that a team makes its greatest progress during a season between games 1 and 2.
Lord knows, Utah needed turbo-boosted advancement after its home loss to USC.
It got it … for one half, building an impressive 21-point lead over the Huskies, and lost it in the second, giving away every bit of that advantage and more, giving away being the operative phrase there, by way of four turnovers.
Ultimately, the Utes were left to suffer, left to hurt and learn, falling by the count of 24-21.
Utah edged forward, improving on its listless showing against the Trojans, but wilted in this major back-end collapse, a failure that kicked the Utes in the head, disallowing victory’s embrace on the road.
That listlessness reared up in some of the same significant areas where it existed last week, primarily on offense, but on defense, too, all of it slipping from enthusiasm into frustration. The Utes simply could not maintain their proficiency.
Let us count the ways:
The offensive line, which pass-protected well and created space for the run game, making it look easy in quarters one and two, made it appear rough and rugged thereafter.
Quarterback play followed the same soar-sag script, with Jake Bentley comfortable as a QB could be, throwing and running for touchdowns in that first half and, then, In the second, seizing up, unable to move the attack.
The running backs leapt and lurched in the same manner, gaining chunks of yardage, then getting shut down. Utah needs to decide upon whom it will rely for rocksteady gains on the ground. It is a tenet of the program, a principle that has both anchored and propelled the O ever since Whittingham took over some 16 seasons ago, and for years before that.
The Utes came into this delayed season undecided who would get that call, and, apparently, it is undecided still. Unfortunately for them, that sharing of the load typically doesn’t work. And it didn’t on Saturday night.
It’s one thing to have two dependable backs, with one of them getting the majority of the carries, working up a lather as he gets into a rhythm, and the other utilized as the frick to the other’s frack, keeping a defense off balance.
It’s another to have four running backs putting their right foot in, putting their left foot out, putting both feet in and shaking them all about, none finding any kind of useful cadence.
And as long as the wall of humanity up front isn’t consistently grading the road, it doesn’t matter if Barry Sanders is in your backfield, the ground game will never be what it could be.
Ty Jordan got 10 carries for 97 yards; Devin Brumfield rushed 10 times for 39 yards; Jordan Wilmore had eight carries for 24 yards; and Micah Bernard toted three times for 13 yards. And Bentley rushed 10 times for 33 yards.
Not. Quite. Good. Enough.
The guys on the other end of Bentley’s throws again were effective early and ineffective later. Brant Kuithe, the Utes’ fine tight end, who had only 23 receiving yards against the Trojans, hauled in four passes this time for another 23. Jordan caught four balls for 31 yards. Bryan Thompson caught three passes for 65 yards and a score.
Utah’s young defense, which had a decent accounting in Week 1, followed that up with another one, at first, shutting out the Huskies before the break, and yielding those 24 points after. U-Dub got 360 total yards, 272 through the air and just 88 via the run.
Washington had averaged better than 35 points in its first two games, and got 11 fewer here, but that was all it needed.
With Utah clinging to a 21-17 lead with just under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, its defense came up with a big play, Vonte Davis picking off a tipped pass that gave possession back to the Utes near midfield, temporarily stopping the Huskies’ flow.
But the Utes couldn’t use it.
They went three-and-out, Bentley getting sacked on third-and-9, resulting in another Utah punt.
Washington took over at its own 12-yard line with 4:31 remaining.
It was left for the Utes’ D to shut the Huskies down, one last time.
It could not, an 88-yard drive ending in a touchdown, a pass from Washington quarterback Dylan Morris to tight end Cade Otton for a three-point lead and … victory.
Utah had 36 seconds to make up the difference.
Another turnover — an interception — finished it.
Exactly where this leaves the Utes with two or three games left to play, maybe fewer, depending on how COVID ravages their schedule, is uncertain. If Utah’s coaches are smart, they will not blow any gaskets, rather use wisely the weeks ahead to tutor a talented-but-vulnerable-and-inexperienced team, one that will benefit greatly from that tutoring.
Like a lot of teams in college football, and a much greater number of people in the country and around the globe, the Utes are facing a refiner’s fire in 2020, in their case, maybe a blast furnace, that will test them physically, mentally, emotionally.
They look to be an outfit that needs the advantages of proper time and coordination to organize themselves, to have themselves organized, into what they can become. That sounds funny, considering they are playing P5 football, not tee-ball. They are scholarship athletes desperately seeking fulfillment in the form of wins, not satisfaction by way of dispensed Otter Pops.
But for one season at least, this season, they are better-suited to live and learn, and perhaps even to lose, to take some lumps on their undulating descent/ascent, setting themselves up for brighter days ahead, than to bury themselves in five layers of discouragement.
If that sounds condescending, it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be what it is — the truth.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.