A blocked punt, four empty drives, and screen-pass follies sealed Utah’s fate at Arizona

Analysis • By the time the Utes had concluded their fourth possession Saturday, the outcome was effectively sealed, as their miscues in all three phases of the game quickly spiraled out of control.

Tucson, Ariz. • Last weekend, Utah began brilliantly and then fell apart. And the Utes never really could figure out why.

This weekend, it took forever for Utah to get going, and by the time it did, it was too late. And the Utes never really could figure out why.

Following the back-to-back losses to Washington and Arizona, the Utes are 7-4, and looking back at a season that has not unfolded the way they wanted.

Such big-picture reflections, though, are for another day.

More immediately comes the need to dig into exactly how and why Utah fell into a 28-0 hole en route to an embarrassing 42-18 defeat at Arizona Stadium.

A punt spelled Utah’s doom

Arizona linebacker Anthony Ward (57) celebrates with running back Nazar Bombata after scoring a touchdown against Utah during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Utah was already in a precarious position by surrendering a touchdown on Arizona’s first drive of the game, then going three-and-out on its own initial possession.

The game got markedly worse, though, when the Utes had their ensuing punt blocked, recovered, and returned for a touchdown.

Having their deficit doubled in a span of seconds was a momentum swing that was difficult to overcome.

“Statistically, you get a punt blocked, you have an 80% chance of losing the game,” said Utes coach Kyle Whittingham. “That’s proven statistically, so that didn’t help our cause.”

He noted that the play resulted not from a mental error, not from a missed block, but rather, “it was a physical error. We got beat up underneath and gave the defender a clear path to the punter.”

Yeah, that’s not great.

Linebacker Levani Damuni attempted in the aftermath not to ascribe too much importance to the play, claiming it was just another bit of adversity to be overcome.

“I think our guys are good at just rallying around each other and just always looking up, always keeping a positive mindset,” he said. “… Our team, we’re really good at just picking each other up when that kind of stuff happens.”

But there’s no getting around the challenge it presented — both mentally and on the scoreboard.

It even got Whittingham to amend his math.

“Yeah, it wasn’t ideal,” he said. “… Like I said, that’s a proven fact that you do lose — in fact, it’s 82% of the time when you have a punt blocked I mean, that’s just a fact.”

A very slow start — in multiple areas

Arizona tight end Tanner McLachlan (84) stiff arms Utah cornerback JaTravis Broughton during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The punt was perhaps most emblematic of Utah’s atrocious beginning to the game, but it was hardly the only factor there.

“It was a slow start, and it shouldn’t take us that long against a good team like that to get going offensively,” said wide receiver Devaughn Vele.

To his point, Utah’s first three drives totaled 10 plays, 18 yards, and three punts between them. And their fourth drive, which finally saw them move the ball and cover 60 yards in 13 plays, culminated with a costly interception.

“We just came off flat, we just seemed slow,” Vele added. “We weren’t getting off the ball quick enough, we weren’t sustaining blocks, we weren’t making big plays. You can’t afford to have a three-and-out on the first drive of the game.”

Or the next two, either.

Arizona, meanwhile, scored a touchdown on each of its first three possessions.

Utah’s defense, already short-handed owing to injuries and a first-half suspension for linebacker Sione Fotu, got yet more bad news with the revelation that defensive end Jonah Elliss, safety Cole Bishop, and linebacker Karene Reid would all be on the shelf.

The Utes’ defense struggled in myriad areas early, but particularly against screen passes, where the Wildcats were able to rack up big gain after big gain.

“Yeah, weren’t getting off blocks. Their wide receivers do an exceptional job blocking in space and being physical, and we did not do a good enough job matching that physicality of the U of A wide receivers,” said Whittingham. “It’s an excellent receivers group — it’s comparable to the top groups we’ve faced this year, the USC group, the Oregon group. These guys are right at that same level, they’re really good.”

Indeed, 221 of Arizona’s 325 receiving yards came after the catch Saturday.

Huskies hangover?

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) throws the football against Arizona during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Some fans rolled their eyes at the notion of last Saturday’s anemic second half vs. Washington having a carryover effect to this Saturday’s mistake-laden first half against Arizona.

Why would one impact the other? they asked.

Well, because we’re dealing with human beings rather than automatons. They have emotions, they are impacted by disappointment. Ideal as it sounds, it’s not always possible to neatly compartmentalize every failure, to give every shortcoming a hard-and-fast cutoff date, then to tuck it away and never dwell on it again.

There’s a reason the Utes have repeated ad nauseum this year the mantra of “don’t let an opponent beat you twice” — because moving on is actually legitimately hard to do.

Vele reacted viscerally when asked about it, and defaulted to the status quo about moving on — but ultimately conceded (if you read between the lines) that it’s perhaps not that simple.

“I’d like to believe not — I would hope a lot of the guys moved on from that loss, because that’s in the past. There’s no reason to dwell on it,” he said. “But I can’t give you a definitive answer. We just came out slow, that’s all I can say. We just weren’t making plays, we weren’t doing the things that we normally do, we weren’t playing Utah football.”

Whittingham, meanwhile, was asked if the cumulative effect of losing a ton of players to injuries, seeing several losses stack up, and the letdown of not having a Pac-12 title to play for had resulted in the Utes simply finding it difficult to be motivated at this point.

“I guess that’s one way to look at it,” he said. “You know, I hate to think that. As an athlete, I never needed a carrot in front of me to play hard and play my best. And I don’t think our guys quit, and I don’t think they were unmotivated. But some of that could have crept in. I guess you wouldn’t rule it out. We’ve played in the championship four years in a row now, and maybe psychologically somewhere in the back of your mind, that was a factor. But I didn’t sense that.”

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