Game Preview: Utah Looks To End Season On High Note

Utah has rebounded from a slow start to win its past two games and get to .500 on the season. Not the Utes will look to continue that momentum when they host Washington State in the finale
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Over the past two years, Utah has been among the nation's best teams — that is until the end of the season. 

Including the Pac-12 title and bowl games, Utah has gone a combined 0-4 in its final two games of the 2018 and 19 seasons. But in the other 24 games of those two years, Utah has gone a remarkable 20-4.

Not finishing out the season's on a high note has been a disturbing trend for the Utes. Come this weekend, it's now something they will look to rectify when they host Washington State on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 11:30 a.m. MT and will broadcast on the FS1.

“It is sad. This is the first time in my career that we’re not playing for a championship. Or the opportunity to go to a championship,” wide receiver Britain Covey said. “It’s different. You’ve got to dig deep. You’ve got to find what motivates you. We’re going to have one more game and this has been such a weird season.”

Utah will enter Saturday's contest against Washington State on a two-game winning streak. 

The Utes began the season with losses to No. 15 USC and Washington, although they led the Huskies 21-0 at the half before crumbling over the final 30 minutes. They rebounded with a 30-24 victory over Oregon State before trouncing No. 21 Colorado 38-21.

“This team hung in there and fought their way out of a tough spot,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “They never flinched and the offense got clicking. … That’s a good road win against a top-25 team.”

Dec 12, 2020; Boulder, Colorado, USA; Utah Utes quarterback Jake Bentley (8) reacts in the fourth quarter against the Colorado Buffaloes at Folsom Field.

Utah found itself trailing 21-10 early in the the third quarter when Brendan Rice (son of NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice) took a screen pass 61 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the second half.

The Utes responded three plays later on an 18-yard touchdown run by running back Ty Jordan, as they finished the game with 28 straight points for the victory.

“The coaches did a good job making adjustments,” Covey said. “We hadn’t played a full game yet. We battled some adversity and played our first 60-minute game.”

Covey was sensational, massing 208 all-purpose yards while adding a career-high nine catches for 76 yards and a score. Jordan continued to make huge strides as a freshman, finishing with 146 rushing yards and two scores.

Dec 12, 2020; Boulder, Colorado, USA; Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Colorado Buffaloes in the third quarter at Folsom Field.

The defense was equally as impressive, holding the Buffaloes scoreless, and multiple three-and-outs, after giving up that final touchdown. Altogether, the Utes gave up just 14 points (Colorado's other TD came on a Rice punt return) and 377 total yards.

But the most encouraging sign for Utah came from up in the coaches box at Folsom Field with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and his play-calling.

In game against both the Huskies and Beavers, Utah's offense was anemic and lacked creativity and imagination. According to head coach Kyle Whittingham, that's one of the main reasons they lost to Washington and nearly blew a a big lead to Oregon State.

“Just kind of got too vanilla and not imaginative and we knew we want to milk the clock," Whittingham said postgame against Oregon State regarding their fourth quarter play-calling. “That was awful to have three three-and-outs in a row at the end of the game when we could have put the game on ice and we couldn’t do it which is unacceptable. That’s us as coaches and we got to get better. There’s not a coach, myself or the offensive staff that’s that’s pleased with what happened at the end of the game so we got to do better but credit our players again for hanging in there and doing the best they could.”

That didn't happen against Colorado as Ludwig kept it imaginative on offense, finding different ways to get the ball to his playmakers; Jordan, Covey and fellow pass catchers Brant Kuithe, Solomon Enis and Bryan Thompson. A mixture of draws, screens, slants and downfield passing plays kept Colorado on its toes and allowed the Utes to pull away in the second half for the win.

Dec 12, 2020; Boulder, Colorado, USA; Utah Utes wide receiver Bryan Thompson (1) makes a catch as Colorado Buffaloes cornerback Mekhi Blackmon (25) defends in the third quarter at Folsom Field.

Utah will be looking for a similar output on Saturday when Washington State comes to town.

Make no mistake, the Cougars may just be 1-2 on the season but they are extremely well rested and highly motivated to reach .500 in head coach Nick Rolovich's first season at the helm. They took down Oregon State in the season opener before suffering losses to Oregon and USC, the two teams battling it out in the Pac-12 championship game.

Quarterback Jayden de Laura is completing 60.4% of his passes for 682 yards and four scores, while adding 37 yards rushing and one touchdown. His primary targets have been Renard Bell and Travell Harris, as they've combing to count for over three-fourths of the Cougars overall production in the passing game. Running back Deon McIntosh has played well in his first season seeing a majority of the reps, averaging 101.3 yards per game (5th in the conference). 

Dec 6, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Washington State Cougars running back Deon McIntosh (3) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the first half of the game against the USC Trojans at United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The defense has struggled though, giving up an average of 36.3 points per game, 11th in the Pac-12. 

One thing Utah must account for is the expected return of running back Max Borghi, one of the most talented players in the nation. Borghi ran for 817 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns on 127 carries last season, adding another 86 catches for 597 yards and five scores.

He's absolutely dynamic with the ball in his hands, and an instant game-changer as soon as he steps onto the field. With Borghi in the lineup, the Cougars become much more balanced on offense and even more difficult to defend.

Dec 27, 2019; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Washington State Cougars running back Max Borghi (21) against the Air Force Falcons during the first half of the Cheez-It Bowl at Chase Field.

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