SALT LAKE CITY — In one half of play, Utah’s offense reeled off 21 points and looked primed to upset the undefeated Washington Huskies at home.
The offense became a shell of itself and suddenly was incapable of moving the ball. So what happened?
It all started with turnovers.
Utah committed two “back breaker” turnovers, according to head coach Kyle Whittingham, and the offense became limited, vanilla and ultimately inefficient.
The first turnover of the second half came when senior quarterback Jake Bentley scrambled out of the pocket, and turning to avoid a sack, looked briefly and found receiver Britain Covey streaking across the field — away the pass went. The only problem was Washington’s Elijah Molden was streaking in front of Covey and easily picked off the pass.
Molden, who had eight total tackles and disrupted much of Utah’s offense in the half, gained 24 yards on the pick and put Washington on Utah’s 27-yard line. Seven plays later, Washington’s Peyton Henry hit a 26-yard field goal. But Utah still led by 10.
The Huskies added another touchdown later in the third quarter for 17 unanswered points and to put themselves within striking distance of a win.
But despite the obvious momentum swing in the game for Washington, Utah marched down the field to the red zone and was primed for another score — its first real complete drive of the second half that relied on a 35-yard breakaway run from freshman running back Ty Jordan.
To open up the fourth quarter, Jordan had the ball stripped and Washington’s Zion Tupuola-Fetui picked up the ball at the 15-yard line and took it for 29 yards to the Washington 43-yard line. The turnover didn’t lead to a Washington score, but it was a demoralizing drive that did little to build confidence in an offense that has been shutout in the second half in both its games.
“Those were back breakers, those two certainly didn’t help our cause,” Whittingham said. “And I firmly believe that we’d probably gone in and scored on the fumble, the Ty fumble there in the red zone. But he did some really good things for us tonight. He’s an electrifying player, he’s got a lot of skill and he’s going to do a lot of good things for this program while he’s here.”
Jordan added a spark to the offense and led a stable of running backs with his game-high 97 rushing yards that included 46- and 35-yard runs. But the turnover, which was Utah’s best shot in the second half, gave Utah little to show for its effort.
But the turnovers alone do not tell the whole story of the game. Utah became conservative in its play-calling and relied solely on a run-heavy attack. That meant none of Utah’s wide receivers touched the ball in the second half.
That gave Washington all it needed to load up the box and stuff Utah’s attempt to advance the ball. The key turning point here came in the third quarter when Utah attempted to gain a yard on fourth down at the Washington 41-yard line.
Washington loaded the box because there was no threat of a pass, or anything other than up the middle, and Bentley’s QB sneak was anything but — the quarterback hit the wall of defenders and there was no push. Turnover on downs.
Without a threat in the passing game, Washington only had to worry about one facet of the game — and that was Utah’s doing.
Utah’s defense deserves some blame due to giving up 24 second-half points, but they held on as long as they could. But given the stagnant offense, it was only a matter of time.
“I really believe this can be a good football team at some point,” Whittingham said. “You just got to keep coaching them as best we can. We’ve got to coach better, obviously, and there’s no — it’s a team loss — there’s no one position unit or one player or anything like that.
“The reason for the loss starts with the coaching staff and goes down from there.”