Utah’s second-half meltdown at Washington still has Kyle Whittingham stumped: ‘There’s really no explanation for it’

After a weekend of reviewing the film from their sudden about-face in Saturday’s loss at Washington, the Utes say they have no good answers about what happened.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Coach Kyle Whittingham on the sidelines as the Utah Utes host the Oregon Ducks, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, with a tough defeat 35-6.

After every loss by the Utah football team, head coach Kyle Whittingham and the players selected to address the media postgame inevitably endeavor not to get too immediately specific about what went wrong, saying they’ll need to watch the tape first.

That apparently did no good in explaining how it was that the Utes went from putting up 28 points and 306 yards in the first half vs. Washington to zero points and 76 yards post-halftime in Saturday’s 35-28 loss in Seattle.

“There’s really no explanation for it,” Whittingham said at his weekly Monday morning news conference. “I’ve watched film three times and can’t tell you why.”

He said the Utes’ play-calling was basically the same.

He said the Huskies’ defensive scheme was basically the same.

He said the personnel on both sides was basically the same.

He said the weather in the cold and windy outdoor stadium was basically the same.

But the results could not have been more different.

“I’ve been coaching a lot of years and I’ve never seen such a dramatic difference in two halves,” Whittingham said. “… We went from outstanding to not being able to do much of anything.”

To his point, it all was working well offensively early.

Utah started slowly on its first two drives, possessing the ball for a combined four minutes, while running eight plays for 23 yards, and punting twice.

Their next four drives went:

1. 75 yards in six plays over 2:29, touchdown.

2. 75 yards in 12 plays over 6:19, touchdown.

3. 64 yards in two plays, spanning 51 seconds, touchdown.

4. 91 yards in seven plays over 2:15, touchdown.

“Probably our best half of football, maybe of the season,” said Whittingham.

“… We blocked well, we caught well, we threw well, we ran well — we did so many good things,” he added. “And then, had we just done half of that in the second half, we probably could have come away with a victory.”

Utah’s first two possessions of the second half were both three-and-outs.

The Utes’ next drive would prove the only time they moved the ball consistently post-halftime, as they went 56 yards across seven plays, getting down to the Washington 24-yard line before quarterback Bryson Barnes threw an apparent pick-six.

The Washington defender was ruled to have dropped the ball at the 1-yard line, giving Utah a temporary reprieve — only for running back Ja’Quinden Jackson to get swarmed in the end zone for a safety on the very next play.

Utah had only two possessions thereafter — a three-and-out defined by a controversial offensive pass interference penalty against tight end Miki Suguturaga, which turned an apparent first down into a second-and-17; plus the final, last-gasp drive, which saw Barnes throw three incompletions and another interception.

The Utes lost all their early rhythm and never appeared close to getting it back.

“Everything I said positive about us in the first half can be flipped in the second half — we didn’t throw the ball as well, we didn’t catch the ball as well, we didn’t run the ball as well, we didn’t run-block as well, we didn’t pass protect as well,” said Whittingham. “It was two [completely] different outcomes in each half.”

A perceptible if non-pronounced decline in executing every phase of the game plan is, indeed, quite mysterious.

So the coach was asked once more if there really was nothing conspicuously egregious that occurred over the final 30 minutes.

“What’s really dramatic is how well we functioned as an offense in the first half. We had over 300 yards — we were on pace for 56 points and 600-plus yards. I mean, that’s very good offense, I don’t know how else to put it,” Whittingham said. “But again, we went from as productive as we can be to the least production. It was a complete reversal and complete 180.

“… I wish we had an answer,” he added. “There was really nothing that you can really pin it to. It was just great execution and production in the first half, not so good in the second half, to put it mildly.”

There’s no getting around the collective disappointment they all had about the loss.

Barnes, receiver Devaughn Vele, and linebacker Levani Damuni were all noticeably glum in the immediate aftermath of the game, giving clipped, low-energy responses.

Understandable, considering the Utes had just seen their long-shot bid at earning a third straight Pac-12 Conference championship all but obliterated.

Now, as is their habit, the team will put Washington in the rearview and move on to Arizona this Saturday.

Utah may be 7-3 and destined for a less-glamorous bowl game, but they’re getting back to practice and working on improving just the same — even if the film was not particularly helpful on this occasion.

“You’ve got to take the same approach, understand that there is more football to be played, you’ve got to rebound, you’ve got to respond. And our team has been good at that this year these first couple of times, and we’ve got to do the same thing this time around,” Whittingham said. “So there’s no difference in our mindset and how we approach it. Got to put it behind you.”