After the week the University of Utah football program had, on the heels of the two games it just lost, it needed a win.
The Utes got the win they needed, an ugly, mistake-filled 24-13 decision over Washington State in which they survived fumbling seven times.
Some will surely argue that Utah getting this win, getting to 1-0 in the Pac-12 is all that matters, but it’s not going to be nearly that simple. As has been the case through this first month, there are a lot of problems, a lot of concerns, a lot of things that need fixing.
A win is a win, yes, but it can’t be boiled down to just that.
Forget Saturday for a second.
Ball security was already a glaring problem for this team. Two fumbles against Weber State, another at BYU, yet another at San Diego State, which averages out to better than one per game over the first three contests.
Utah fumbled seven times vs. Washington State, giving it 11 for the season, five of which were lost. With each passing fumble against the Cougars, it felt more and more ridiculous that Kyle Whittingham couldn’t find anyone to hold on to the ball.
Normally sure-handed Micah Bernard, who had emerged as RB1 over the last two weeks, fumbled once out of bounds, then recovered his own fumble two plays later. The third-year freshman then fumbled the ball away on the first play of the second half and was done for the day with what Whittingham termed an upper-body injury, although it appeared to be Bernard’s left shoulder.
Ja’Quinden Jackson lost one on the Washington State 8-yard line, Cam Rising fumbled a snap before recovering it, Chris Curry fumbled on the goal line, although he took a good shot to jar that ball loose, Tavion Thomas lost his third fumble in four games, and a Rising-to-Bernard handoff early in the game was a rough exchange and was dropped.
Between Weber State and Washington State, Utah’s ball security has gone from an early-season issue that needs to be addressed to a dire situation that is threatening any semblance of tangible growth from the offense. Without those fumbles, Utah at least approaches 40 points, and less of the onus to get out of Rice-Eccles with a win would have been placed on a defense that was mostly outstanding.
Here is the day in a microcosm: Early in the fourth quarter, T.J. Pledger found daylight and went up the middle for 59 yards down to the Washington State 15. At the end, Pledger literally had both arms wrapped around the ball shielding it with his abdomen in an effort to not drop it as he got tackled. Curry’s goal-line fumble came four plays later.
What becomes of the running back merry-go-round now is certainly a talking point of the upcoming open week. Bernard had the job locked down, but he fumbled three times Saturday and his health is unknown. Whittingham keeps going back to Thomas, but how much faith can there be at this point with three fumbles in four games? It feels like it’s Pledger’s turn for legitimate RB1 carries after he went for 117 yards on 10 carries, including a lead-changing touchdown with 4:43 to play.
Based on how the first three games went, the fact that Saturday even got to Pledger carrying 10 times, let alone Curry getting two touches inside the 10-yard line, is a problem.
The defense showed up
Anyone watching this game could see that Utah’s defense was the reason it won, but the defense was also the reason Utah was even in position to tie or lead as the fourth quarter wore on.
Washington State’s final six drives: Devin Lloyd interception, punt, punt, punt, Clark Phillips III 54-yard interception return for a touchdown, turnover on downs.
This went by the wayside with all the fumbling, but Utah’s defense was on the field for 44 first-half plays on an 80-degree day, which meant it was probably double-digit degrees hotter on the field. To hold the Cougars to six first-half points under those conditions needs to be commended.
Washington State graduate transfer quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was sacked eight times, three of them belonging to second-year freshman defensive end Van Fillinger. The defensive line collectively got a better push on Saturday than what it produced at BYU and San Diego State.
The real revelation on defense Saturday was walk-on freshman linebacker Karene Reid. Starting in place of the injured Nephi Sewell, Reid had 15 tackles, seven of them solo, and an interception as the Utes defense yielded 318 yards of total offense, including just 70 rushing yards.
If and when Sewell returns to his linebacker spot, how and where Reid contributes is a question, but he was everywhere on Saturday. Moving forward, it stands to reason that Reid is going to be part of the equation.
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A word on Cam Rising
Let’s take a step back and acknowledge that this was a chaotic seven-day period for Rising.
Pressed into duty at San Diego State, the fourth-year sophomore dragged Utah into a third overtime before it fell, 33-31. One of five captains, Rising helped lead a Sunday players-only meeting. He was installed as the starter, Charlie Brewer left the program on Tuesday, and only then did Rising have to prepare himself and his offense to play a Pac-12 game.
Rising was solid. He wasn’t asked to do a ton, but he did what he was asked. In his second start as a collegian, and really his first full football game as a collegian, Rising went 13-for-23 for 137 yards and played to a quarterback rating of 106.6. He had a 27-yard completion to Dalton Kincaid late in the third quarter, an 18-yard strike to Devaughn Vele in the fourth, and that was about it for any potential fireworks.
Saturday was fine. Rising was safe, he was smart, he did not make poor decisions on a day when 59% of Utah’s 56 plays were on the ground. Since entering at the 5:24 mark of the third quarter at San Diego State, Rising is 32-for-56 for 290 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
I am of the opinion that if Utah thinks it is going to be a player in the Pac-12 South, it will need to throw the ball more and put more points on the board. The division Saturday between the run and the pass will not cut it against higher-end Pac-12 teams.
This team is not good enough right now
Whittingham is in no position to argue that, and frankly, he hasn’t been shy in four postgame press conferences about stating what is ailing this team right now.
The fumbles are the chief concern going into the open week. That has to get figured out because leaving possessions and points out there is not a recipe for success.
All-Pac-12 kicker Jadon Redding missed his third field goal in as many games, Jordan Noyes took over place-kicking duties in the fourth quarter, and now Whittingham is leaning towards Redding vs. Noyes in practice to get that figured out.
Britain Covey had two catches for eight yards on just three targets.
The offensive line was much better Saturday, but still not at maximum efficiency. Although, if Whittingham believes he has the correct five out there with Kump-Bills-Ford-Laumea-Daniels out there with Bam Olaseni at No. 6, then the trajectory of the unit should be going up now.
Remember when, after the Weber State game, Whittingham walked into his press conference with a crumpled 3x5 index card that had a quick list of issues that needed fixing? The overarching problem is that, as Utah passes the quarter pole of this season, Whittingham has not been able to cross enough things off that list.
Working in Utah’s favor, two things: The Utes have not lost a Pac-12 game, and the Pac-12 South feels primed for some chaos with October upon us.
Injuries are mounting
Whittingham is next scheduled to meet the media on Monday morning, at which point there may be an update on Bernard, but he is not the only Ute that was injured on Saturday.
Both starting safeties, Vonte Davis and Brandon McKinney, were hurt, as was McKinney’s backup at the strong safety spot, true freshman Cole Bishop. Depending on the severity of those injuries, that is a very big deal moving forward.
Beyond those three, second-year freshmen Kamo’i Latu has seen reserve action in all four games, while freshman Darrien Stewart is another option to ponder.
Food for thought: If defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley is comfortable with Reid at linebacker, might Sewell temporarily move back to safety in a pinch?
Other things on my mind
• Given the wild week and the injuries, this is a good time to have a week off. Whittingham agreed.
• No doubt, there are going to be more instances of Ja’Quinden Jackson in short-yardage/wildcat packages. He scored on second-and-goal from the 2, then fumbled on the 8 later on, but rest assured, there will be more. He’s too big, too imposing, too tough to take down once he gets downhill.
• Peter Costelli dressing for the first time this season is noteworthy. His redshirt is imminent, but let’s see how they get to the redshirt. Smart money at this point says Costelli never takes a snap, but it’s early.
• Karene Reid’s emergence Saturday makes me wonder if highly-touted four-star freshman linebacker Ethan Calvert gets the chance to do anything worth mentioning this season.
• Late in the first quarter in a scoreless game, Rising and All-Pac-12 tight end Brant Kuithe just missed down the left hash on what would have been a long connection well into Cougars territory. The throw was a touch high, but Kuithe maybe should have had it. If they make that connection, the game takes on a completely different tone. Next play: Rising throws behind Kuithe for what would have been a short gain. Next play: Punt.
• Utah-USC on Oct 9 in Los Angeles is not going to be the clash of the titans a lot of us thought, but that’s still a hugely-critical if the Utes want to win the Pac-12 South.