Utah football ended COVID-fueled 2020 with a wild finish, Drew Lisk’s shining moment vs. Washington State

The redshirt senior quarterback, who didn’t flinch in the middle of a real debacle, deserved the game ball and the storybook ending.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Drew Lisk (12) throws a pass as Washington State Cougars defensive end Brennan Jackson (80) defends, in PAC-12 football acton between Utah Utes and Washington State Cougars at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

Good for Drew Lisk.

The redshirt senior quarterback played in six games for the University of Utah from 2016-19, and none this season until he was thrust into duty late in the first half Saturday afternoon vs. Washington State.

Lisk engineered five scoring drives on eight second-half possessions, four of which went for touchdowns, as the Utes scored 38 unanswered points to defeat the Cougars, 45-28, to finish this weird, unprecedented season at 3-2 with three straight wins.

Lisk finished 15-for-26 for 152 yards. He didn’t blow anyone away, but he was steady. He was mistake-free, he made his throws, he helped save a game that looked lost — Utah down 28-7, with Jake Bentley playing poorly, save for a 91-yard catch-and-run touchdown to Britain Covey off a wheel route.

A postgame video posted on Twitter by @Utah_Football showed head coach Kyle Whittingham giving Lisk the game ball and really, is there any doubt as to who that ball belonged to?

“He’s got a great attitude, he’s just the epitome of a great teammate,” Whittingham said. “All he wants to do is help the program any way he can. He came back (for a fifth year). We were grateful he came back, elated when he decided to come back because he’s got two or three degrees and all kinds of stuff that he could do, but Drew Lisk is a pleasure to have on your team. He’s a guy that helps everybody as much as he can, he’s like a coach on the field, and you saw the legend of Drew Lisk was born in that second half. He’ll be able to tell that story for years, how he came in and rallied the troops.”

Well-said, Kyle. We will leave it at that.

Three takeaways

If this was the end of the Jake Bentley era, it wasn’t pretty: Bentley has improved with each passing game this fall, but he appeared to regress in the first half vs. Washington State.

Specifically, accuracy issues that were prevalent early in the season popped up again, especially on a couple of throws behind Britain Covey that got the junior wide receiver hit hard by a Cougars defensive back as a result. The aforementioned 91-yard connection with Covey aside, Bentley had a rough first half. The tipping point for Whittingham came late in the second quarter when Bentley threw an interception right to Washington State cornerback Jahad Woods deep in Utah territory. He took the interception back to the 3-yard line, the Cougars cashing it in for a touchdown on the first play of the ensuing drive. Bentley’s day was done, and maybe his time at Utah.

In four games this season, three of them starts, Bentley completed 62.1% of his passes for 882 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions.

Whatever Bentley decides to do next season (more on that below), Whittingham has already indicated that he intends to find more quarterback help ahead of spring practice. At a minimum, Utah needs some competition in the room with Cameron Rising likely unavailable for spring ball thanks to season-ending shoulder surgery.

This Utah defense is going to be really good down the road: At this point, we have touched on this ad nauseum, but it bears repeating after a terrific second half on Saturday.

This Utah defense, young, inexperienced, and still a work in progress, has outperformed any reasonable expectation even Whittingham had for the group before the season began.

Utah entered the day ranked second in the Pac-12 in total defense (357.2 yards per game) and No. 1 in rushing defense (106 yards per game). It yielded 396 total yards Saturday, but only 108 after halftime. The 115 rushing yards allowed Saturday means Utah will finish as the No. 1 rushing defense in the league.

Not a bad job by defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, who had to replace nine defensive starters, including the entire secondary. Sophomore cornerback JT Broughton has the makings of a stud, as does Nate Ritchie, although the freshman strong safety will go on a two-year church mission, not returning until the 2023 season. Senior free safety Vonte Davis was a pleasant surprise, and highly-touted freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III has shown promise, but he broke loose Saturday.

Phillips III had a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to provide the icing on the win, plus a couple of pass breakups and a fumble recovery.

Utah plays defense, even when it is young. Scalley and his staff made that point sufficiently over five games.

Jadon Redding was the most-underrated player on the roster: Not enough has been made about the job the sophomore place kicker did this fall, so let’s try and fix that.

Whittingham sold a fall camp competition between Redding and freshman Jordan Noyes. Redding won it, and proceeded to go 8-for-8 on field goals and 17-for-17 on extra points.

For as much as college kickers get made fun of, Redding was solid all fall, including a season-long 44-yard hit on Saturday to give Utah some breathing room at 38-28 with 2:37 left.

Whittingham said throughout camp that Noyes had the stronger leg. To that end, he handled kickoffs during the season.

Player of the game

Drew Lisk, Redshirt senior, QB

Lisk got the game ball from Whittingham, so he’s going to get it here, too.

One more main point on Lisk here. It speaks to his preparedness, not to mention his maturity, that in the middle of what was looking like a real debacle to close the season, the Draper native got the call and he didn’t flinch.

He went in there and he was a calming influence. Yes, Ty Jordan and the offensive line did a lot of the heavy lifting, but Lisk was smart, he was safe, he didn’t do anything to lose this game for Utah. Credit to offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig for calling a smart, low-risk second half.

As we sit here writing this, we marvel at that storybook ending to what is very likely the end of Lisk’s football career.

Up next

Cautiously assuming the college football world gets back to some semblance of normalcy and plays the full 12 games, Utah opens the 2021 season on Sept. 2 vs. FCS power Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Long before anyone worries about that, though, there are personnel decisions to be made fairly soon.

With the NCAA having frozen the eligibility clock in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah has 17 players with senior eligibility this season that have the option to come back for 2021. Whittingham said there will be a team meeting on Tuesday night as those things begin to get sorted out.

Among the 17 names, there are some important ones besides Bentley, Vonte Davis, defensive tackle Viane Moala, wide receiver Samson Nacua and center Orlando Umana among them. Whittingham said Saturday he does not expect Lisk to return for a sixth season.

Additionally, there may be an NFL Draft decision or two sprinkled in there in the coming weeks. Redshirt junior linebacker Devin Lloyd, a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, said Saturday he has thought a little about his future, but will take more time before deciding on what to do next season.