Tucson, Ariz. • After losses against Oregon State, Oregon, and Washington, respectively, this season, the Utah football coaches and players vowed each time not to let that conquering opponent “beat us twice.”
They promised that no defeat would linger, that they’d get back to work, that there would be no carryover into the next week.
And yet, following last weekend’s difficult defeat in Seattle, it was hard not to see the effects of a hangover Saturday, as a disastrous start by the Utes ultimately led to a 42-18 annihilation by host Arizona.
Utah surrendered one big play after another on the Wildcats’ opening drive, yielding a touchdown. Their own subsequent drive was a quick three-and-out that went from bad to horrendous when a blocking miscue allowed a free run to punter Jack Bouwmeester, resulting in a blocked kick that was recovered and returned two yards for a score.
The Utes wound up trailing 21-0 after the first quarter, and were left to wonder what had happened.
They were outgained 196-23 in those first 15 minutes.
And to add insult to injury, Arizona tacked on yet another touchdown on the opening play of the second quarter.
While the Utes eventually stopped the bleeding, they ultimately died from the wounds.
“Really tough to win a football game when you go down 28-zip,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said afterward. “That’s a lot to overcome, and that all happened in the blink of an eye.”
On account of Utah’s defense belatedly stiffening up a bit, Arizona taking its foot off the gas, and the Utes pulling off two long drives late, Utah actually finished the game with a 453-443 advantage in yards gained.
Clearly, that stat doesn’t tell the story.
When Arizona scored early in the second quarter to make the score 28-0, the game was pretty much over — with the better part of 45 minutes yet to be played.
“We knew adversity was going to hit, and it hit pretty early today,” said linebacker Levani Damuni.
The Wildcats wouldn’t get on the scoreboard again until deep into the fourth, but it didn’t matter.
The rare Utah drives that went anywhere were usually undone by an ill-timed penalty which put the team behind the sticks and short-circuited whatever small modicum of momentum they’d managed to gain.
“We were trying to figure out why we started slow,” said receiver Devaughn Vele, who continued his late-season surge with 111 receiving yards. “… We came out flat.”
The Utes came into the game impacted by myriad injuries to key players, and were further decimated by the pregame announcement that star defenders Jonah Elliss, Cole Bishop, and Karene Reid had all been ruled out.
Utah clearly missed them early, as it surrendered huge plays and clock-draining drives throughout the first half.
They could not slow the Wildcats’ myriad screen passes early, as one short throw after another turned into one long gain after another.
The Utes are now 7-4, and will conclude their regular season next Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Colorado.
And it’s not going to get any easier, with Whittingham confirming postgame that Elliss had suffered a season-ending injury, while adding that Reid will definitely miss the Buffaloes matchup with an eye toward returning for the team’s bowl game. Bishop, meanwhile, has a chance to play against Colorado, but is iffy.
Their absence certainly hurt on Saturday.
But the blowout was hardly on account of that alone.
“We didn’t score enough, we didn’t defend well enough, we didn’t play special teams well enough, we didn’t coach well enough,” Whittingham said simply. “We’ve got to accept the fact that they outplayed us and outcoached us.”
Hard to argue with that.
Utes trail 28-10 after three quarters
Utah’s opening drive of the second half got the Utes a bit closer to Arizona.
But that was the end of their progress in a comeback attempt going nowhere.
A promising drive was undone by yet another penalty, as tight end Landen King’s 13-yard gain on a jet sweep had all but four yards wiped out in a hold by fellow tight end Miki Suguturaga.
Behind the chains yet again, they ultimately settled for a 36-yard field goal by Cole Becker.
The defense began to keep the Wildcats from moving the ball downfield with impunity — aided by an afternoon rainstorm — but Arizona was still able to chew up some clock. The ’Cats had a field-goal attempt of their own bounce off the right upright to keep it an 18-point game.
Utah had another promising drive later in the quarter, but ultimately turned it over on downs when Bryson Barnes’ pass to King along the sideline fell incomplete.
Utes trail 28-7 at halftime
The Utes are finally on the scoreboard.
After one promising drive into the red zone ended with Bryson Barnes staring down a receiver and telegraphing a pass that was easily intercepted, he at least got the Utah offense moving again late in the second quarter.
Following a rare stop by the defense, Arizona punted, and the Utes inherited the ball at their own 8-yard line. They promptly covered 92 yards in 10 plays, though, with Barnes coming under pressure and throwing a desperation pass into the end zone, which Devaughn Vele dove to catch for a 20-yard score with 52 seconds remaining before halftime.
Utah, however, couldn’t quite pull off going into the break with the momentum.
They allowed a sizable return on the ensuing kickoff, and then Arizona methodically moved the ball down the field, going 55 yards in nine plays. The Wildcats wound up with a 37-yard field goal attempt, but Utah defensive end Connor O’Toole got a hand on the kick, causing it to miss.
Utes go down 28-0 early in second quarter
Utah’s defense has totally broken down.
While Arizona started the game with a bit of trickery, the Wildcats’ coaches soon discovered they could save whatever exotic plays they have remaining for more needed situations.
Simple screen passes are apparently enough to decimate the Utes on this occasion.
Another short pass by Noah Fifita yielded yet another touchdown, as he threw a screen to running back Michael Wiley, who simply ran a straight line 31 yards untouched to the end zone. The point after made it 28-0 Arizona, just seven seconds into the second quarter.
Utes trail 21-0 after first quarter
If you thought things couldn’t get any worse for Utah, you were wrong.
The team’s decimated defense, already short-handed, and then without three more starters Saturday at Arizona Stadium, could do nothing to slow the Wildcats’ offense.
Arizona’s third score came via a six-play, 80-yard drive, culminated by a 32-yard catch-and-pitch between Noah Fifita and Montana Lemonious-Craig, who easily outran Utah’s defenders to the end zone.
Arizona finished the opening 15 minutes with 196 yards to Utah’s 23. The Utes had six rushes for six yards.
Early breakdowns put Utes down 14-0
Well, that couldn’t have gone much worse for Utah.
Host Arizona moved the ball at will on its opening drive, with quarterback Noah Fifita doing the bulk of the damage on a 36-yard connection to a wide-open Malachi Riley.
Three plays later, a double-pass caught Utah completely unaware, as wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan found running back Michael Wiley all alone in the back of the end zone.
Meanwhile, Utah put itself in a bad position on its ensuing drive, with an illegal snap penalty putting them behind the chains and ultimately leading to a three-and-out.
There was a huge breakdown in protection, though, as Anthony Ward came screaming through untouched, easily blocked Jack Bouwmeester’s punt, then scooped it up at the 2-yard line and took it across the goal line.
A PAT later, and Arizona held a shocking 14-0 lead.
Utes will be short-handed on defense
Utah’s stellar defense is missing several key contributors for Saturday’s game against Arizona.
Star defensive end Jonah Elliss — who is second in the FBS in sacks this season — is out, as are safety Cole Bishop (considered the fulcrum of the team’s defense), and starting linebacker Karene Reid.
Sione Vaki, who has been a vital two-way contributor for the Utes at safety and running back/wildcat quarterback, is dressed for the game, but is thought to be limited in what he will do against the Wildcats, perhaps indicating he will not be making any appearances on offense.