Kyle Whittingham had to have been smiling as he entered the visiting locker room in Husky Stadium at halftime on Saturday night.
After all, his Utes were leading 21-0 after scoring a touchdown in the final minute. His struggling offensive line was doing a much better job protecting quarterback Jake Bentley and opening up holes for the running game. Play-makers Brant Kuithe, Bryan Thompson and Ty Jordan were all making a massive difference due to creative play-calling. And most of all, his extremely young defense forced two turnovers and held the Huskies to just 127 total yards.
“A lot of positive things in that game. The way we played in the first half was indicative of who we can be, but we didn’t finish,” Whittingham said postgame. “There’s 60 minutes of football and we played 30 of them. We came out in the second half and didn’t get much done … You’ve got to put two halves together and finish the deal.”
So how did it all go wrong in the second half? Did Utah forget that they were playing on the road in the Pac-12 and try to get home early? What happened to that creative play-calling? Why did the offense start turning the ball over? How come the defense failed to make adjustments?
Here are THREE reasons how Utah lost that game in the second half.
1.) Offensive Play-Calling
For whatever reason unknown to us, Utah completely took its foot off the pedal and became a very anemic and predictable offense in the second half.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig completely changed his game plan over the final 30 minutes as once again, Utah tried to bleed the clock by going with a 'run, run, pass' approach.
What worked in the first half was Utah being creative and getting the ball to its playmakers. On one play, tight end Brant Kuithe got an end-around and picked up nine yards. The next play was a play-action pass where quarterback Jake Bentley hit Bryan Thompson for a 19-yard gain, which was followed by a run up the middle for another solid gain.
That sort of creativity was non-existent in the second half as the Utes were playing not to lose — and that never works out.
The most egregious of the play-calling came late in the third quarter after Utah's lead had dwindled to 21-10. Facing a fourth-and-one at Washington's 41 yard line, Bentley went for a quarterback sneak rather than handing the ball off to a running game that was dominating at the time or punting and pinning Washington deep. He was eventually stuffed and the Huskies took over on downs with great field possession, scoring a touchdown to finish the drive.
When asked about the play-calling and why Kuithe and Thompson failed to touch the ball in the second half after combining for seven touches, 85 yards and a touchdown in the first half, Whittingham wasn't sure why.
Well he better figure it out as not getting the ball to his best play-makers isn't exactly a recipe for success.
2.) Offensive Line Pass Protection
It's been well documented this past week how the offensive line really struggled against USC and that was one of the main reasons for the loss.
The group responded with a dominating performance on the ground against one of the best rush defenses in the conference. The Utes ran for 215 yards on 42 carries, averaging 5.1 yards per rush while scoring two touchdowns.
But when it came to pass protection, the unit really struggled. Nick Ford was a monster at center and did a phenomenal job in his first start there. But the tackles really struggled as they had no answer for Zion Tupuola-Fetui, who finished with three sacks and three tackles for loss, while also forcing and recovering a fumble.
A lot of the blame can be placed on Bentley — accounting for three tunrovers — but it's not his fault that he was under constant pressure the entire second half whenever he dropped back. Utah must find a way to throw the ball with any sort of success if it's going to win some games, and that starts with giving Bentley a clean pocket.
3.) Defense Failed To Make Adjustments
It's understandable that the Utah defense was completely gassed late in the fourth quarter. After all, they'd been on the field for most of the half and struggled with Washington's physicality the more the game went on.
But what was worse is that the players weren't even being put into spots to succeed. It was well documented that Washington quarterback Dylan Morris loves his tight end Cade Otton, and after doing a great job of defending him in the first 30 minutes, the Utes forgot how to contain him in the final 30 minutes.
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley definitely deserves some of the blame as he failed to roll coverages towards Otton, often leaving him open or single-covered. And Otton made the Utes pay, finishing with eight catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner.
“We just kept not matching up properly. We played primarily zone tonight. That tight end is a good player. He was their favorite target,” Whittingham said. “He had timely catches that moved the chains in critical situations.”
Failing to make that adjustment eventually cost the Utes in the second half, and helped lead to the 0-2 start.
It's unknown where the Utes go from here as they must answer some of the major questions they flew home with. The game was theirs for the taking, as any score in the second half probably would've led to the win. Alas that didn't happen and now the team must adjust with Oregon State coming to town on Saturday.
“It was the same problem we had last week offensively, turning the ball over with four more turnovers,” Whittingham said. “When you play good teams like USC and Washington, you’re not going to win turning the ball over. The biggest difference in the game is four turnovers.”
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