What went wrong in Utah football’s loss to BYU? Pick a problem, any problem.

Analysis: The Utes struggled to control the line of scrimmage in the 26-17 defeat

Provo • The University of Utah picked a bad night to have a bad night.

Turnovers, poor play along both lines, and an overall malaise marred the 101st meeting between the Utes and BYU, the latter firmly in control throughout on its way to a 26-17 win in front of an announced sellout crowd of 63,470 at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Pick a problem, any problem on Saturday night, large or small, collective or individual, because there were a lot of them.

That play call on fourth-and-2

Utah (1-1) took on some water early, but settled in after Charlie Brewer’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Brant Kuithe cut the Utah deficit to 10-7 midway through the second quarter. The Utes defense followed with a three-and-out, giving Utah’s offense the opportunity to continue building momentum.

Faced with fourth-and-2 at the 8 after Brewer hit Theo Howard for 13 yards, Whittingham opted against a 25-yard field goal attempt from All-Pac-12 kicker Jadon Redding. Instead, the Utes lined up in the shotgun, Brewer handed the ball to Micah Bernard on a draw, and the third-year freshman was stopped a yard shy of the first down.

Whittingham, who is by no means a staunch analytics guy, cited the analytics had that down and distance as a “solid go from 4 (yards) or less.” With that, Whittingham had no problem going for it with two yards to go.

“Just because it was a bad outcome doesn’t mean it was a bad decision, I’d do it again,” Whittingham said. “That’s what should have happened in that situation in my opinion, as well as the analytics, and so you can’t base the decision on the outcome.”

Not taking the points is one thing, but opting for a draw out of the shotgun, with the offensive line already getting pushed around for much of the night, felt like a spotty call, not only in hindsight, but in the moment. To that point, the execution on the draw was not good up front, Bernard never really having a great chance to get the two yards he needed.

Instead of Utah tying the game, BYU took over on downs and went 93 yards in 11 plays, capped by Jaren Hall finding former Ute Samson Nacua for a 2-yard touchdown and a 16-7 lead after the missed extra point.

How much second-guessing should go on here? On one hand, take the points and the tie. On the other hand, even if you take the points and the tie, the ensuing kickoff is likely a touchback, meaning the Cougars have a shorter field in which to score vs. the 93 yards they went. There is no easy answer, no right answer really.

That play was not a game-ender, or maybe it was depending on how you want to view it. Either way, it stands out as a rough play on a rough night for most of Utah’s offense, with the exception of Micah Bernard.

Utah’s defense, especially its front four, got bullied

No matter the season, no matter the personnel losses and reloading, Utah stops the run. That is one thing everyone can always count on.

BYU rushed for 219 yards at 4.8 yards per clip. That is pretty gaudy by normal standards, but now go look up where Utah has ranked in rushing defense nationally in the Pac-12 over the last decade. That doesn’t happen to the Utes.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall (3) rolls out of the pocket before completing a pass for a first down, in football action between the Utah Utes and the Brigham Young Cougars at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo, on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

“I would have bet my house going in tonight that we would not lose the line of scrimmage,” Whittingham said. “I would never have seen that coming where we didn’t control the line of scrimmage, that’s what we do best. Had zero sacks, zero takeaways on defense.”

Specifically, Utah failed to seal off the edge time and time again. More specifically, Cougars first-year starting quarterback Jaren Hall had a field day, going for 92 yards on just eight carries. Eighteen yards on third-and-1, 11 yards on third-and-8, 14 yards on another third-and-1, 18 yards on fourth-and-11 in plus territory.

There was no legitimate pass rush, no sacks, no takeaways, no game-altering plays from the Utah defense.

BYU was 11-for-19 on third down, Hall did anything he wanted, and so did Cougars offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, who called a fantastic game while keeping Utan on its heels all night.

There shouldn’t be an ‘OR’ separating the running backs anymore

The job should belong to Bernard, who rushed 12 times for 146 yards and a touchdown. There is a case to be made for Tavion Thomas, but here’s the difference between him and Bernard.

Thomas lost a fumble vs. Weber State, then lost a fumble in the first quarter Saturday night on his first touch. Whittingham does not have patience for fumbles, and while Thomas absolutely will have a role moving forward, Bernard has done more through two games.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) hands off to Utah Utes running back Micah Bernard (2), in football action between the Utah Utes and the Brigham Young Cougars at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo, on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Bernard has seven catches on seven targets this season as a pass-catching option, but his work on the ground Saturday was eye-opening. A 22-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run included four broken tackles, which came after earlier runs of 32 and 50 yards, respectively.

Everyone saw what went on Saturday night. There isn’t any mystery to this anymore. When Utah releases a fresh depth chart Monday to begin a week that will end with a game at San Diego State (in Carson, Calif.), Bernard should be at the top of the depth chart, and there shouldn’t be an ‘OR’ separating with anyone else.

Two more points here. One, Thomas made a couple of cameos later in the game after the fumble, an indication that Whittingham wants to keep at it with the Independence Community College transfer.

Two, it’s Bernard and Thomas right now, no debate. TJ Pledger and Chris Curry, the high-profile Power Five transfers from Oklahoma and LSU, respectively, are non-factors.

Two first-quarter turnovers set the tone for the offense

It took all of two offensive series for this game to take on an uneasy feeling for Utah.

On third-and-12 from the Utah 28-yard line, BYU brought a blitz and flushed Brewer out of the pocket. He tried to force one into Britain Covey, but was intercepted by Chaz Ah You.

The Utes’ next drive saw Thomas finding a rhythm, Utah moving to near midfield, but Thomas’ second fumble in as many games ended that threat. BYU took that turnover and turned into a 37-yard Jake Oldroyd field goal to open the scoring.

In 7:49 of the first quarter, Utah’s offense had 48 total yards, an interception, a lost fumble, zero points, zero rhythm, and a real feeling to it that this was going to be a rough night after some legitimate problems in the opener that were masked by some legitimate optimism.

Utah rushed for 193 yards at 7.7 yards per carry. That works every time out. Brewer going 15-for-26 for 147 yards will not work, but in the immediate postgame haze, a lot of the struggles can be put on the offensive line, which got beat up. When Brewer had time and a clean pocket, he was effective, specifically on the first touchdown drive, where he was 3-for-3 for 31 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown pass to Brant Kuithe.

The offensive line continues to be an issue

There was a lot of talk during camp about improved line play, improved pass pro, mostly veteran groups, etc.

None of that has come to fruition yet, but we’re willing to wait that out for another game, maybe even two, because the offensive line is just now starting to find full health.

Second-year freshman Jaren Kump made his season debut at left tackle after starting all five games last season at right tackle. Kump’s first appearance helps Utah move towards getting its five best guys healthy and on the field.

Left guard Braeden Daniels, center Nick Ford, right guard Sataoa Laumea (season debut) and right tackle Simi Moala rounded out the line, with last week’s starting left tackle Bam Olaseni spelling Kump at one point.

BYU’s defensive line pushed Utah’s offensive line around for much of the night, which is not something that usually happens to a Utah offensive line. As noted above, Whittingham seemed genuinely shocked postgame at the play of his two lines, so here comes a new subplot to an already consistent storyline.

The overall health of this offensive line is now coming into focus, but now it needs to get extended practice time together and figure some things out, because Whittingham is not in the business of having his guys up front getting worked over.