Analysis: Based on expectations, Utah football’s loss at UCLA means its season is now on the brink with USC up next

Plus: Is this who Utah’s defense is, the Karene Reid roughing the passer penalty, Thomas Yassmin’s tough day, and more.

(Ashley Landis | AP) UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet (24) stiff arms Utah linebacker Karene Reid (21) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

Pasadena, Calif. • One game is not going to define your season, but there is a caveat there as it pertains to the University of Utah.

When you go where many of these Utes went 10 months ago, and when a lot of those guys return, and when some of those guys utter the words “College Football Playoff” among the big-picture goals, everything that goes on every Saturday is going to be placed under a microscope.

Saturday’s 42-32 loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl was bad. The defense gave up too many yards. The front seven again could not stop the run. A needless roughing the passer penalty at the most inopportune time gave momentum back to UCLA, which never gave it back. Cam Rising was very good, save for a poorly-thrown interception. There were a couple of drops that would have gone for big gains, the kick return coverage was subpar all day.

Everything is up for discussion. Well, almost everything.

The CFP is now eliminated from the discussion. A potential Pac-12 title defense on Dec. 2 in Las Vegas, while still very much in play, enters this week seeming just a little wobbly with No. 6, unbeaten USC next up at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Maybe Saturday alone will not define Utah’s season, but if it doesn’t rally and figure some things out ahead of the Trojans visiting, that’s what you’re going to remember about 2022.

This might just be who this Utah defense is

It’s a 12-game season. Utah is now at the midway point. How many games is a big enough sample size to determine what a team is in any capacity, whether that’s offense, defense, or special teams?

If we hadn’t already gotten there, I say we’re there now, and I’m talking specifically about the defense. This is your personnel, this is your scheme, this is what you’re doing. It’s six games in, Utah is not making any drastic changes on the fly.

The Utes entered Saturday ranked No. 6 in the Pac-12 and 46th nationally against the run 123.2 yards per game. Take the 212 yards UCLA rushed for, and that average jumps to 138 yards per game. Not good enough, certainly not up to Utah’s general standards. They all count to be certain, but if we take just the three best opponents Utah has faced, Florida, Oregon State, and UCLA, the run defense has given up an average of 226 yards per game.

Utah’s raw numbers in terms of total defense entering the day are actually fantastic, ranking No. 1 in the Pac-12 and 13th nationally at just under 279 yards per game. That number has a lot to do with, and Kyle Whittingham alluded to this a few weeks ago, SUU and San Diego State not looking to throw the ball much, so the passing defense number, which was at one point 90 yards per game, probably was not indicative of, well, anything at that point.

Back to the run defense to close this up. I offer this quote from Whittingham.

“Run defense was pretty good for the most part, it was big plays that killed us. We’d lose a gap, and whenever we lost a gap, they exploited that. Overall, carry-by-carry, we weren’t that bad, we just missed too many tackles. We had a few breakdowns, and they capitalized on that.”

I didn’t totally grasp this sound bite in the moment, and it’s a little tough to grasp now. UCLA was 5.6 yards per carry, and had five runs of at least 10 yards, including a 44-yard run and a 49-yarder from Zach Chabonnet.

All of it counted.

The roughing the passer penalty

Whittingham correctly stated postgame that one play does not decide a game, but rather a number of plays over the course of four quarters. Fair enough, but Karene Reid’s roughing the passer penalty late in the third quarter feels very regrettable given what happened as a result.

After opening the game with two punts, Dorian Thompson-Robinson and the UCLA offense did whatever they wanted for most of the middle-two quarters. At the same time, Rising had settled in and had the Utah offense humming nicely, and a back-and-forth game had ensued as the third quarter wound down.

Nursing a 21-18 lead, UCLA weirdly went conservative. Charbonnet up the middle for 1, Charbonnet up the middle for 3 to set up third-and-6 at the UCLA 39. Thompson-Robinson looked down the left sideline for All-Pac-12 wide receiver candidate Jake Bobo, but the pass was broken up.

As Thompson-Robinson released the ball, Karene Reid was closing in, but he didn’t stop. The result was Reid making enough contact where a roughing the passer penalty was warranted. Egregious? No. Needless? Yes. A game-altering moment at a time where Utah’s defense was all but off the field? You bet.

Thompson-Robinson to Titus Mokiao-Atimalala for 21, a shovel pass to Keegan Jones for 24 a little later, a 10-yard touchdown pass to Bobo on a slant on third-and-8 without anyone near him, a 28-18 lead, and that was essentially it.

Utah doesn’t get penalized a ton, and it didn’t on Saturday, incurring only four for 29 yards, but that one on Reid stung.

The Thomas Yassmin drop

Two quick things to set this up. One, Yassmin has been seeing extended reps in multiple-TE sets with Brant Kuithe out for the season. Two, Whittingham has been high on Yassmin with the media going back to at least spring practice.

On first-and-10 from the UCLA 39 late in the first quarter, Rising bought some time by rolling to his right, allowing a play to develop, eyeing a downfield look to Yassmin, who had broken open.

Yassmin dropped the pass at the 10 as he appeared to begin slightly turning up the field before he’d possessed the ball. Had he caught the ball and turned, it might have been a touchdown. At worst, he is tackled at or inside the 5, and Utah is in business.

Yassmin had a tough day. Later on that drive, on first-and-10 from the 28, Rising hung in the pocket, but was picked off at the 5 by Darius Muasau as he tried to squeeze one into Yassmin through heavy traffic. Yassmin stayed down, was helped off the field, and was done for the day. The assumption up in the press box was a concussion, but Whittingham did not have a status update postgame.

With Yassmin out, Munir McClain took the majority of those reps. If Yassmin cannot go against USC, expect more of McClain alongside Dalton Kincaid.

This is not the same situation as last season

Early in Whittingham’s postgame press conference, he offered his belief that where Utah is now is comparable to where the Utes were last season after losing at Oregon State.

“Very eerily, in a very similar situation as we were last year at about this time. I can’t remember exactly what the situation was record-wise, but it was very similar. I’d be willing to bet a lot of money nobody goes through this conference undefeated, there’s too many good teams. By no means out of contention, so the situation now is to pick ourselves up and go back to work on Monday, address our efficiencies, and become a better football team next week, because it doesn’t become any easier next week, I can tell you that for certain.”

A year ago, the Pac-12 was split into divisions, with the winner of each playing in the Pac-12 championship game. Utah had to worry about finishing ahead of five other teams. It had already beaten Arizona State. The loss in Corvallis was a speed bump, but beating UCLA the following week at Rice-Eccles meant it had the head-to-head tiebreaker over its two main South threats.

Now, divisions are gone. The teams with the two-highest conference winning percentages will instead play in the Pac-12 championship game. Utah now has to worry about 11 other teams, not just five. USC is a contender, which was not the case last season. UCLA is a contender, which was not the case last season. Utah still has to go to Oregon, which has looked nothing like the team that was blown out by No. 3 Georgia on Sept. 3.

Whittingham is right. Utah picked itself up last season after Oregon State and played inspired, often-dominant football in finishing 8-1 to claim the South. This Utah offense can be electric when it gets going. It can score a ton, but you’re watching the games, you’re paying attention, right?

Be honest with yourself. All things being equal, does this feel like a team right now that is going to run the table, including beating USC and Oregon, and get back to the Pac-12 championship game?

Make no mistake, Saturday’s visit from the Trojans is a referendum on Utah’s season.

Other things on my mind

• Tavion Thomas showed up on Saturday, then Utah went away from him. Seven carries for 46 yards in the first quarter, seven more for 35 yards and a touchdown in the second quarter, then just four more carries the rest of the way. UCLA is one of the best teams in the country in terms of pressuring the QB, so Utah went run-heavy early to ease some of that pressure on Rising. The Utes trailed the entire second half, so they started throwing more.

• Jaylon Glover was a DNP, Ja’Quinden Jackson did not get a carry. Discussing this running backs situation is getting redundant.

• After Kuithe was lost for the season, the assumption was Kincaid would start getting a heavier workload. He has just seven catches for 84 yards in two games without Kuithe. Whittingham went out of his way Saturday to say they need to get him the ball more.

• Rising really does not make a ton of bad decisions. I’ve covered all 20 games of his college career and can recall less than five “Whoa, what was that” throws. The interception intended for Yassmin was one of those moments.

• You can always cherry-pick a couple of seemingly odd play calls over the course of a game, so let’s do that. Third-and-6 from the 50 on the opening drive. Micah Bernard up the middle for one yard. Third-and-2 at the 3, Tavion Thomas for a loss of two. Part of me was fine with that play call, but UCLA had snuffed out a similar call to Thomas on second down.

• The coverage on kickoff returns was not good enough, which includes Jordan Noyes not kicking out of the end zone and enabling UCLA to bring the ball out. Average starting field position for the Bruins was their own 34. That included a 27-yard return out to the 29, a 33-yard return out to the 39, and a 43-yard return out to the 48.

• USC-Utah is still huge, but definitely loses some luster after Saturday. The gigantic Pac-12 game coming up is now UCLA-Oregon in Eugene on Oct. 22. Both are 3-0 in the Pac-12, both have a bye this week.