Early in the fourth quarter of a game the University of Utah had already assumed control of, Britain Covey returned a punt for a touchdown Saturday night against Oregon State.
The play marked Covey’s return in earnest. It was electric, it was vintage, it was proof that the redshirt junior is healthy after a slew of injuries, most recently a hamstring issue that limited the redshirt junior in season-opening losses to USC and Washington last month.
In hindsight, that punt-return touchdown was also absolutely necessary, because without it, maybe the Utes are winless after three games for the first time in 20 years. Instead, that touchdown was the difference. Up three scores at that point with 14:37 to play at an empty Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Beavers got to within one score late, but the Utah defense bailed out a shoddy second-half offense and a largely-undisciplined effort for a 30-24 Utes win.
“We were up, 30-10, and in complete control, and lost control,” Whittingham said. “Fortunately, we had enough in the tank to get the victory in the end.”
A lot of positive things happened for the Utes (1-2) Saturday night. Covey looked like himself, finishing with four catches for 54 yards plus a eight-yard touchdown reception from Jake Bentley (18-for-27, 174 yards, TD), his first touchdown since Oct. 20, 2018, to put Utah up, 23-10 with 6:22 left in the third quarter.
Freshman running back Ty Jordan continues to cement himself as the No. 1 option out of the backfield after a four-way race emerged in fall camp. Jordan finished with 167 yards and his first career touchdown on 27 carries. He’s fumbled twice this season, and Utah had nine turnovers in its first two games, but Jordan didn’t fumble, and Utah didn’t turn the ball over against the Beavers (2-3).
The defense stood tall late as Utah tried to give the game away, getting stops on consecutive possessions while nursing the 30-24 lead. Freshman strong safety Nate Ritchie ran up and stopped running back Calvin Tyler for a one-yard loss on fourth-and-1. After Utah went three-and-out, the defense again saved the day, this time on forcing an incompletion on a fourth-and-8 pass from the Utah 36-yard line.
“We work so hard all season, during the week, we never expect to lose, that’s never in our minds,” redshirt junior linebacker Devin Lloyd after registering seven tackles, including two for a loss. “Losses are extremely tough, but victories are what we play for, it’s what we love, it’s what we expect.”
For any good there was, there was enough bad on Saturday that Whittingham, normally nothing but even-keeled with the media, was visibly frustrated.
Utah was penalized 11 times for 96 yards. On Oregon State’s first touchdown in the second quarter, Utah was penalized four times for 31 yards, including two personal-foul penalties and a Malone Mataele targeting ejection.
The offense netted 11 yards on 11 fourth-quarter plays. After Oregon State quarterback Chance Nolan hit Kolby Taylor between defenders in the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 30-24 with 5:07 left, Jordan got stuffed on second, third, and fourth-and-1 to turn the ball over on downs.
Whittingham, though, saved most of his frustration for his team’s red zone offense.
On the game’s opening drive, the Utes faced third-and-8 from the Oregon State 15. Bentley dropped back, had time, then missed Brant Kuithe around the 5-yard line. Had Kuithe made the catch, he had room to run, but may have had to take on a defender at the goal line.
The next two drives were more of the same. After Vonte Davis’ second interception of the season set Utah up in the red zone, Bentley overthrew Cole Fotheringham in the end zone on third-and-goal at the 2. Early in the second quarter, Utah’s third drive stalled, Bentley overthrowing Kuithe in the back of the end zone on third-and-5 from the 9.
All three drives resulted in Jadon Redding field goals of 33, 20, and 27, respectively. At the 12:27 mark of the second quarter, there was a strong argument to be made that Utah should have been up, 21-0, instead of 9-0.
“That was extremely frustrating, the first three trips to the red zone to end up with field goals,” Whittingham said. “The game should have been blown wide open earlier, and it was our inability to function how we need to in the red zone, our ineptness in the red zone.
“That game should not have even been close early on.”
• Utah avoids its first 0-2 start since 2000 by beating Oregon State, 30-24, at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
• Down 30-10 with 14:37 left, Oregon State scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, and had two late drives with a chance to win.
• Freshman running back Ty Jordan had 167 yards and his first career touchdown on 27 carries.