Utah football’s blown lead, loss revealed more problems, but also optimism

(Ted S. Warren | The Associated Press) Utah quarterback Jake Bentley keeps the ball for a touchdown against Washington during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Seattle.

Just for a moment, put aside the fact that the University of Utah blew a 21-point halftime lead and lost at the University of Washington late Saturday night, 24-21.

In what has absolutely been the weirdest, most unpredictable month of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of Utah football, last week proved weird and unpredictable.

The Utes began the week scheduled to play Arizona State, which has been dealing with a weekslong COVID-19 outbreak. The game was moved from Saturday to Sunday in an effort to give the Sun Devils more time to get themselves together. By Tuesday afternoon, the game was canceled. By Tuesday evening, Utah was matched up with Washington, which saw the Apple Cup vs. Washington State get canceled as the latter dealt with its own virus outbreak.

Utah’s coaching staff extended their Tuesday workday into the wee hours of Wednesday morning to start full-blown Washington prep, while the players began full-blown prep on Wednesday. On Wednesday evening, what was an 8:30 p.m. ESPN broadcast from Seattle, was shifted to a 5:30 p.m. ABC broadcast.

The whole thing speaks to the uncertainty of the collegiate athletics environment in the middle of a global health emergency. One may argue the whole thing speaks to the needlessness, or safety, of playing college sports in the middle of a global health emergency.

“It’s been a weird year, that’s for sure, and it’s a mental challenge, especially for coaches when you’re so regimented and you have your routine, your process and the way you schedule to be in flux all the time,” coach Kyle Whittingham said via Zoom following Saturday’s loss. “Coaches are built a certain way, and that way is not to continually change day to day or even hour to hour, but you have no choice, there’s no choice. That’s the situation we’re in and so you have to figure it out.”

Utah had things figured out for 30 minutes on Saturday night, but as Whittingham noted postgame, a football game is contested over 60 minutes, not 30.

Three takeaways

• Turnovers are a problem: In a normal season, a one-game sample size won’t tell you much, and even a two-game sample size may not tell you everything. In what will be a four- or five-game season, two games will have to be enough to decipher.

In two games, Utah has turned the ball over nine times, including four at Washington. Of the four, Whittingham would later call two of them “back-breakers.”

After Washington took the second half’s opening drive swiftly down the field for a touchdown, Jake Bentley’s third-and-6 pass attempt on the ensuing drive was intercepted by Elijah Molden and returned to the Utah 27-yard line. The Huskies turned that into points via a Peyton Henry 26-yard field goal.

At the start of the fourth quarter, with Utah leading 21-17, freshman running back Ty Jordan was stripped at the Washington 12, ending Utah’s most promising drive of the second half. Whittingham later said he believed that drive was going to end in a touchdown before the fumble.

Regardless of the sample size, regardless of who’s quarterback, nine turnovers in two games is a ton, and it’s a problem for the Utes with two or maybe three games to play.

• Run blocking was outstanding, pass protection not so much: Utah’s offensive line was much maligned after getting beat up vs. USC, but the unit played better against Washington, albeit with a different look. With senior center Orlando Umana out with injury, redshirt junior left tackle Nick Ford kicked inside to center, leaving Simi Moala to start at left tackle. Keaton Bills (left guard), Sataoa Laumea (right guard) and Jaren Kump (right tackle) remained at their normal spots.

Utah rushed for 215 yards on 42 attempts for an average of 5.1 yards per carry. Of those 42 carries, five went for at least 11 yards, including runs of 12 and 14 from Bentley, which leads us to pass protection.

The Utes’ still need to do a better job of protecting Bentley in the pocket. The graduate senior rushed 10 times for 33 yards, but those were not designed runs. The pocket collapsed and Bentley was sent scrambling too many times, although, to his credit, he did create something out of nothing a few times. The pass protection has to be better, plain and simple.

On topic, Bentley needs to start sliding more if he’s going to take off and run. Utah is already down a quarterback, and Bentley looked way too willing to put his head down and take the hit. Nope, can’t do that.

• How hurt is Britain Covey?: This has gone under the radar.

Covey dressed and warmed up, but did not play vs. USC. He dressed and warmed up again at Washington, this time getting clearance for special teams, while seeing limited offensive reps.

How much we see Covey on offense, if he takes on any sort of significant role at all, is now in question at the midway point of a four-game regular season. The redshirt junior had zero targets against the Huskies, although Bentley’s third-quarter interception was intended for him.

Other key injury questions right now are Umana, who has 26 career starts, including 22 at center, and senior wide receiver Samson Nacua, who missed Saturday’s game after getting banged up vs. USC.

Player of the game

Ty Jordan, freshman, running back

Jordan, a onetime Texas commit, has been as advertised, a multidimensional offensive threat with the makings of a legitimate star for Whittingham.

The fourth-quarter fumble aside, Jordan was outstanding in rushing for 97 yards on just 10 carries, while adding four catches (on four targets) for 31 yards.

Whittingham has said it would be a running back-by-committee approach, but Jordan has done more and looked better than Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore. Micah Bernard has gotten limited game reps and would appear to be behind the other three.

For the two games, Jordan has 17 carries for 131 yards, a gaudy average of 7.6 yards per carry.

Up next

It has been a month of cancellations and game-day changes, but Utah’s next opponent appears to be pretty straightforward.

The Utes will host Oregon State on Saturday at Rice-Eccles, with kickoff set for 8:30 p.m. on ESPN. Utah has moved past its COVID-19 outbreak from earlier this month, which canceled two games, while the Beavers have played all four of their games this season with minimal, if any, COVID problems.

Keep one thing in mind. If fans are concerned about long-term progression for the roster, they should root for Utah to be bowl-eligible, which would trigger another game, more practice time, more film work, etc.

The Utes have two more regular-season games scheduled and possibly another game on Dec. 19 against a TBD opponent. At 0-2, whether it has two or three games left, Utah needs to win out to be bowl-eligible.