Analysis: Utah football saw porous defense, red zone woes contribute to Oregon State loss

Utes are tied atop the Pac-12 South with Arizona State, but have the tiebreaker with UCLA visiting Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday.

Corvallis, Ore. • History, not to mention rational thinking, dictates that the University of Utah was going to lose a football game to a Pac-12 team at some point.

No South Division team has gone unbeaten since the conference moved to divisions in 2011. With that, even after exorcising demons at USC, even after outclassing Arizona State in the second half, a trip to Oregon State on Saturday night by no means felt like an impossibility, but it did feel like a tough ask.

On the road, in crummy weather conditions, against the Pac-12′s top rushing offense, which was coming off a bye. That’s not easy, and the Beavers made sure it stayed that way, handing the Utes a 42-34 loss to send the South into its annual spiral of chaos.

Utah and Arizona State are tied atop the South at 3-1, but the Utes hold that tiebreaker. Two-loss UCLA visits Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night, but there are a lot of things to work out before the Bruins show up.

It’s time to talk about the defense

Utah’s defense, which is banged up in some spots and awfully young in others, was dominant for long stretches against USC and Arizona State, but let’s take a closer look at that.

The Utes yielded 401 passing yards to Kedon Slovis on Oct. 9. It pitched a second half shutout against the Sun Devils, but only after giving up 21 points and 288 total yards in the first half. Neither of those games were complete four-quarter showings, and Kyle Whittingham has said as much. His offense, which has turned more versatile, more prolific with Cam Rising at quarterback, has helped mask some of the defensive shortcomings.

Oregon State came into Saturday night averaging 242 rushing yards per game. It rushed for 260 yards against the Utes, with 186 of them coming on nine runs of at least 10 yards.

That’s not good enough, and the worst part was a heap of the trouble came on the outside with Utah unable to set the edge. It felt like the BYU game on Sept. 11, when the Cougars were consistently getting to the edge in rushing for 224 yards.

Utah’s raw numbers for the season against the run are not bad. It came into the night giving up 3.6 yards per carry and 128.3 yards per game. Oregon State is a different animal. The Beavers have an offensive line, a creative play-calling mind in head coach Jonathan Smith, and the ability to mix up what they throw at you.

Next up? UCLA, a top-20 rushing offense nationally, spearheaded by one of the conference’s elite running backs, Zach Charbonnet. Utah will have to deal with that without Devin Lloyd for the first half after he was ejected for targeting in the third quarter. More on that later.

Red zone woes were glaring

For starters, remember, Whittingham does not consider field goals in the red zone to be wins, so while Utah was officially 6-for-8 in the red zone, that figure needs some filtering.

A 17-play drive that spanned the first and second quarters featured three third-down conversions wrapped a fourth-down pickup, only to stall inside the 20. A 29-yard Jordan Noyes field goal gave Utah a 17-7 lead. Noyes also hit one from 33 yards late to cap the scoring at 42-34.

The red zone misses were turnovers on downs. Up 17-14, the Utes had first-and-goal at the 8. Tavion Thomas for six yards up the middle, followed by a pair of incomplete Cam Rising passes before fourth-and-goal from the 2 went to Brant Kuithe for one yard on a little out route.

In the fourth quarter, down 11, Utah had first-and-goal at the 5. Third-and-goal from the 2 was a designed keeper for Rising that went nowhere, and a fourth down pass Britain Covey was broken up at the goal line.

Whittingham said postgame that he wouldn’t have done anything different and that he would have gone for both of them. Fair enough, but down 11 and needing two scores, maybe you take those points to get it to eight. On the first fourth down play from the 2, I thought being aggressive there and going for it was the right move, and the play call to Kuithe was fine, but the execution left something to be desired.

Utah left points out there, enough points to turn this into a win, enough points where everyone involved should be justifiably frustrated.

Special teams has been a mess

Whittingham was the special teams coach at Idaho State early in his coaching career. He still takes that phase of the game very seriously, and when it’s not going well, he is noticeably displeased.

Luke Musgrave blocked a third-quarter Cameron Peasley punt, scooped it up, and went 27 yards for a touchdown and a 28-24 Beavers lead. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Peasley had another one blocked and returned 48 yards to the Utah 11, but this one was wiped away thanks to a pair of penalties, one an equipment violation for two Beavers having the same number, the other a personal foul.

Utah was set up at the OSU 24 after that, but a 10-yard holding call on second down backed things up, and Noyes eventually missed a 52-yard field goal that left Utah trailing, 35-31.

On the block that counted, Whittingham noted postgame that the get-off time on the punt was 1.84 seconds, which is fast, but punt protection didn’t hold up.

Here is a quick list of special teams troubles this fall: Weber State had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, so did San Diego State. All-Pac-12 kicker Jadon Redding missed three field goals and two extra points through the first four games, then lost a bye week kicking competition to Noyes, who went 2-for-3 on Saturday. Peasley entered the night ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in punting average at 41.3 yards per attempt.

Cam Rising continues to be very good

In only his fifth career start, Rising was 22-for-36 for 267 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He added 73 rushing yards on 10 carries. As has been the case, Rising was accurate, smart with the football, and was willing to leave the pocket and make it happen with his legs.

What stuck out about Rising’s night wasn’t the passing, but the running. An early scramble for nine yards, another for 21 yards up the middle on third-and-13 after nobody was open, another for 16 on third-and-3 on a drive that ended with a Tavion Thomas touchdown run.

Aside from a designed keeper or two, Rising was not looking to leave the pocket. He was patient, he went through his progressions, and if nothing was there, he tucked the ball away and went. The willingness to do that makes him more dangerous, because when he goes with his legs, it almost always ends in positive yards.

One piece of advice: Slide. Rising took a couple of good hits on scrambles and while it is part of who he is that he is fighting for more yards, making a business decision every once in a while on a run would be wise.

The Devin Lloyd targeting call

I don’t know what targeting actually is, you don’t know what it actually is, no one seems to know what it actually is.

Here is the NCAA rulebook on targeting: “takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or legal block or playing the ball.”

With Utah leading, 31-28, late in the third quarter, Lloyd was ejected for targeting on a play in which he led with the crown of his helmet. At the moment, the call seemed legitimate and there wasn’t much of an argument. Whittingham felt differently.

“I didn’t,” Whittingham said when asked if he thought it was targeting. “His head was down, he was trying to get out of the way of the quarterback’s head and avoid the helmet-to-helmet. It’s a shame that it was called. Maybe I’m wrong, that’s my opinion. As he was trying to get under the blocking, he did duck down, and the helmet was involved in the tackling, but it wasn’t helping him.”

That targeting ejection includes a steep price as Lloyd is now suspended for the first half of the UCLA game. Utah not having its best defensive player available for two quarters against a capable, explosive offense being steered by a veteran quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson is less than ideal.

What else is on my mind

• When was the last time there were more questions about the Utah defense than the Utan offense? Seriously, the days of Alex Smith?

• The double reverse in the third quarter to Brant Kuithe on first down was a head-scratcher. Took forever to develop, wound up a five-yard loss, put Utah off schedule, the series ended with the first blocked punt. Needless.

• Tavion Thomas got hurt, maybe a hyperextended knee. Not great if it’s serious, but manageable because that position has some depth.

• Lost in the shuffle of a tough night: Brandon McKinney coming across the field to strip-sack Chance Nolan, while Junior Tafuna had the loose ball bounce in his hands. Credit to Tafuna having the presence of mind to get one foot down before going out of bounds.

• Given the events of the last month, I do wonder what the emotional toll is right now inside the Eccles Football Center. That cannot be discounted, and it should continue to be said that Utah lost and buried a teammate within a two-week span, and is now playing football games. Pressing forward was a team-wide decision, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Quite the opposite.