What worked for the Utes in win over Baylor? And what didn’t?

Utah 20, Baylor 13 • The fourth quarter (mostly) and the ground attack were bright spots, but Bryson Barnes’ passing and the first-half defense left a lot to be desired.

Utah quarterback Nate Johnson (13) scores a touchdown against Baylor in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Jerry Larson)

Waco, Texas • This was not one for the faint of heart.

After three quarters of uninspired and erratic play, the Utah football team finally broke through with a pair of touchdowns in the game’s final two minutes, then survived a botched defensive sequence in the waning seconds, ultimately emerging with a 20-13 win over Baylor at a broiling McLane Stadium on Saturday.

Nate Johnson came on in relief to lead Utah to its first touchdown of the game, guiding a 15-play, 88-yard drive that ate up more than eight minutes, and tied the game with 1:59 to go.

After Cole Bishop then got a gift interception on a pass thrown right to him, Jaylon Glover scored the go-ahead TD with 17 seconds remaining.

Game over, right? Not quite.

A blown coverage enabled the Bears to complete a 47-yard bomb, with Hal Presley going out of bounds at Utah’s 22 with 1 second left. Sawyer Robertson tried a corner fade to Ketron Jackson, and while there was contact with cornerback Miles Battle, no flag was thrown for pass interference.

Game really was over this time, with the Utes emerging 2-0.

Here’s a more in-depth look at what went right and what went wrong.

Bryson Barnes’ unsettled afternoon

It was big news that, after he made his second career start and got his second career win, the Utes put Milford’s Finest, Bryson Barnes, on scholarship.

He would make his third career start vs. Baylor … and did not make anyone forget how much the Utes miss Cam Rising.

Barnes frequently looked out of sorts and indecisive, trying to fit the ball into nonexistent windows, or just plain missing his receivers.

The Utes opted to go for it on fourth-and-10 from Baylor’s 36 early in the fourth quarter, and Barnes badly missed his target, tight end Thomas Yassmin.

So wonky was Barnes’ play that offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig finally opted to go to backup Nate Johnson in the fourth quarter.

“Yeah, who could get the hot hand — that’s what it came down to in the second half,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “Bryson was struggling. … We’ve got to have more out of the throw game.”

Barnes finished 6 of 19 for 71 yards, with no TDs and one pick.

Nate Johnson — down, then up

Given how wild Barnes was, and given how solid Johnson appeared on that fourth-quarter drive, many Utes fans were asking why the Utes didn’t go to him much, much sooner.

Well, he wasn’t exactly lighting it up early himself.

After having some ball security issues in Game 1, the problem continued in Waco, as he took a big hit on a run and put the ball on the ground in the first quarter (though he did recover the fumble).

That play was doubly egregious because he kept it on a read-option, when Ja’Quinden Jackson looked to have a wide-open running lane.

Johnson at times appears to be unaware he does not have to keep it himself on every snap — the Bears were definitely keying on him every time he went in, and he wasn’t doing much initially to keep them honest.

Johnson didn’t get a ton of looks behind center in the third quarter, but when the Utes put him in with 10:01 remaining in the game, he made the most of it, concluding that drive with a tying 7-yard touchdown run.

“Things weren’t going well the whole game, and coach called my number. I live by this quote: ‘Stay ready, ain’t gotta get ready,’” Johnson said. “And I just stepped in, trusted the game plan, trusted the calls, trusted our offense, and trusted God, and he blessed us to come out with the win tonight.”

He completed 6 of 7 passes for 82 yards, and rushed 11 times for 32 yards and the score.

Nearly blowing it

Sooooo … what happened on that final drive?

Well, before Baylor threw that one last ridiculous scare into the Utes came Utah’s decision for Glover to get the TD with time remaining, rather than doing kneel-downs, taking the clock down to a few seconds, then calling timeout and kicking the field goal.

Glover took the handoff, and Baylor was content to let him score, to give themselves one last chance. He ran parallel to the end zone for a bit, trying to run some clock, before a defender shoved him in for the score.

Whittingham didn’t have a problem with how that part played out.

“Him and [running backs coach Quinton Ganther] may have talked about it,” he said. “… The rule of thumb is if you’re ahead by one, you don’t score, because that’s the only way you can lose, is to score right there and and give them a chance to get a touchdown and two-point conversion. I talked to him after the game he said he was just trying to burn more time; he was fully intent on getting in the end zone, but he was just going to wait.”

The strategy almost backfired, though, when Baylor subsequently exploited the Utes’ coverage and wound up getting one last shot.

“You can’t let anyone get behind you in that situation. We’ve got to coach that better,” Whittingham said. “… We take full responsibility for that, as coaches. That’s our job to get them more savvy to situations, and we’ll do that.”

Getting the ground game going

The Utes rushed for 105 yards in Week 1 … on 30 carries. Whittingham said he wasn’t impressed with the O-line’s physicality on those run plays, and said the team needed to be more effective and efficient on the ground.

A week later, the rushing attack proved more than capable of picking up the slack for an anemic passing performance.

In fact, Jackson exceeded the team’s entire Week 1 rushing total by himself against Baylor.

He had 129 yards on 19 carries, including an impressive 44-yard burst. Utah finished with 224 rushing yards on 47 carries for the game.

“Today, I was just like, ‘I’m back in my home state, and I got a lot of people here, so I have to put on a show.’ That was my main goal,” Jackson said. “I had to do better than what I did last week. And I mean, the results speak for themselves.”

Zero sacks, but the defense comes alive late

It was presumed that Utah’s most significant advantage in this game might be its ferocious defensive line against Baylor’s shaky front five. After all, the Utes totaled five sacks with mostly backup D-linemen vs. Florida, while the Bears were decidedly up-and-down against Sun Belt program Texas State.

But on Saturday? Crickets.

The Utes did not have a sack in the game, and didn’t really even have that many chances.

Still, the pass rush was responsible for Robertson’s horrible late pick, which the panicky QB threw right to Bishop after coming under pressure.

Utah’s defense in general came alive as the game went on, allowing only 117 yards post-halftime after surrendering 222 in the opening 30 minutes.

“Early on, we were giving up a lot of yards — we were fortunate to be able to stop them before they were scoring, mostly,” said Bishop. “But later on in the game, we knew we needed to get a takeaway or a three-and-out or anything like that. So, being able to get the ball back in the offense’s hands was awesome.”

Fellow safety Sione Vaki said the coaching staff issued a challenge at halftime.

“Just told us to be our culture, to be ‘RSNB’ — relentless, smart, nasty, ballhawks,” he said. “We came out there with a little more juice.”