Utah was rolling vs. Washington, and then … nothing. So, what went wrong?

Players and coaches said the undefeated Huskies didn’t make any seismic shifts to shut the Utes down in the second half — the level of play just declined at the wrong time.

SeattleThere’s no getting around that Saturday was a huge missed opportunity for the Utah football team.

Considered big underdogs against the fifth-ranked and undefeated Washington Huskies, they were rolling in the first half, with Bryson Barnes outplaying Heisman Trophy candidate Michael Penix, and the Utes holding advantages in both yards gained and points scored.

Everything that could go wrong post-halftime did, though, as Utah was shut out over the final 30 minutes, and fell 35-28 at Husky Stadium.

The loss gave Utah its third defeat of the season, and pretty much ended the team’s hopes of winning a third straight Pac-12 Conference championship.

So, how did all fall apart so dramatically? Here’s a look at some of the key factors.

Pick-six/fumble/safety sequence

Utah running back Ja'Quinden Jackson reacts after scoring a touchdown against Washington during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

This game wasn’t decided by that wild sequence near the end of the third quarter.

But for all intents and purposes, it could have been.

Utah was moving the ball for the first time post-halftime, having already driven 58 yards downfield to the Huskies’ 24-yard line following a touchdown that’d put Washington ahead.

Then Bryson Barnes threw behind his intended target, had the ball popped up in the air, and it was then intercepted by linebacker Alphonzo Tuputala, who appeared to have a 76-yard pick-six. Exceeeeept …

He dropped the ball before crossing the goal line, and the Utes jumped on it and recovered it, seemingly getting a leviathan of a reprieve.

“Great hustle by Michael Mokofisi, who was right there pursuing the football and ready to jump on it. Just a tremendous heads-up play by that kid,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s 330 pounds and ran the distance, and never, never stopped on the play, and had the wherewithal to understand that he had dropped it early. So just I can’t say enough positive things about his effort on that, and his awareness.”

All that effort and awareness were undone one play later, though, when the Utes made the decision to try and gain some space from the goal line by handing off to running back Ja’Quinden Jackson. He began the play several yards deep in the backfield, and Washington’s stacked defensive line swallowed him up several yards deep in the end zone for a safety that not only made the score 35-28 for the Huskies, but meant they’d be getting the ball back.

A total momentum-killer.

“It’s still better than giving up a touchdown,” said Whittingham, “but it took some of the wind out of our sails when that happened.”

Utah receiver Devaughn Vele said players never want to ascribe too much importance to one play or one sequence or one drive — but there was no getting around the importance of seemingly getting that second chance, and then squandering it in horrific fashion.

“We’re used to the adversity. We practice it all the time, we go through things — there’s always going to be plays in the game that are going to test us, are going to push us. It’s just how you respond,” Vele said. “And so it was a whole myriad of emotions that was going on that whole sequence, and we were just trying to do our best to respond in the correct way that we needed to.”

That didn’t really happen.

A dream opening half

Utah running back Sione Vaki, right, scores a touchdown in front of Washington safety Vincent Nunley during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Before the damaging events of the third quarter unfolded, Utah was opening some eyes with the way it was playing in the first half.

Following a few vanilla drives to begin the game, the Utes caught fire, scoring touchdowns on four consecutive drives at one point.

Barnes looked the best he had all season, throwing for 238 yards, two TDs, and no picks.

“What was he — like 14 of 17 in the first half?” Whittingham asked, guessing the passing stats correctly “… He was really efficient, and the receivers were making plays, and we were protecting well.

“… We were up and down the field and completing passes and making plays,” he added.

Washington came into the game as the unquestioned top passing offense in the country, but Barnes had 40 more passing yards than did Penix, and Utah had outgained Washington 306-260 overall.

“We were rolling on offense,” said Barnes.

Vele, who had four catches for 122 yards at the time, setting up a pair of rushing scores by Jackson, felt everything was working.

“Bryson [was] giving me chances,” he said. “We had the matchups that we wanted, and we made the right calls. It’s just a blessing that I even made the plays that I made — just being in then right spot at the right time.”

Soon enough, though, nothing was going right.

Second-half power outage

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes looks to throw against Washington during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

“Played really well offensively in the first half — not so well in the second half,” Whittingham said, succinctly, in the aftermath.

Hard to sum it up any better than that.

Utah had 306 yards and 28 points before halftime, and 76 yards and zero points after it.

“Yeah, we just weren’t able to get things going,” said Barnes. “We just couldn’t find that spark that we had in the first half.”

Whittingham said he’d need to watch the film to get the full picture, but felt like the offensive line wasn’t as dominant up front, which made it more difficult to run the ball, which made it easier for the Huskies to tee off on rushing the passer.

As a result, Barnes went just 3 of 14 for 29 yards and two interceptions in the second half.

Whittingham said it wasn’t a case of Washington making massive adjustments, just the Utes going from playing well to not.

“There was nothing dramatically different, I can tell you that,” he said. “… They didn’t make any wholesale changes, we just couldn’t get in sync in that second half. We just couldn’t get in a rhythm.”

Meanwhile, Utah’s defenders weren’t thrilled with how their second half went, either.

Even though Washington racked up 24 first-half points and just 11 in the second, the Huskies also asserted control as the game went on, controlling time of possession for nearly 35 minutes. With the game still within one score, Washington did a masterful job of bleeding the clock in the fourth quarter.

“We knew they were gonna get theirs, but just not enough production from us when we’re bringing seven men and [the matchups] are one-on-one,” said linebacker Levani Damuni. “We just need to get home on more blitzes.”

Whittingham ended his postgame media session with one last quick postmortem: “It just seemed like we weren’t as good at anything in the second half.”

Pressure, but not enough

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) scores a touchdown in front of Utah safety Sione Vaki (28) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Whittingham and defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss both noted during the week that Penix is particularly skilled at getting the ball out quickly, and thus avoiding sacks.

Given Damuni’s previous comment about not getting home on blitzes often enough, you can probably guess how the Utes’ pass rush fared on Saturday.

One sack, when safety Sione Vaki got to Penix after he bobbled a snap.

Penix recovered from an up-and-down first half in which he had a sub-50% completion rate to finish the game 24 of 42 for 332 yards, two TDs, and zero picks. And just that one sack.

Utah actually was able to put pressure on Penix myriad times, but simply couldn’t get to him. Needless to say, Whittingham came away even more impressed after seeing the Huskies’ QB in person.

“Yeah, we were very close, but that’s who he is. He’s probably gonna win the Heisman Trophy. In mean, that’s who he is. I would say he’s the front-runner right now, from my perspective,” said Whittingham. “… All the great ones do get it out quick. You sit there and hold onto the ball, hold onto the ball, you’re not going to be very effective. So he does a phenomenal job of getting the ball out, and he’s got a strong arm, he can make every throw in the book — there’s not a throw that he can’t make.”

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